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Time Flies: JPL’s Experimental Space-Based Atomic Clock Completes Extended Mission After ‘Resounding Success’

Published on Tuesday, October 5, 2021 | 5:27 pm
 
Photo Courtesy Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are celebrating the successful conclusion of a mission by Deep Space Atomic Clock, which was extended into a year of overtime following the completion of the primary mission last year, according to JPL.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock was built to push the limits of accurate timekeeping in space, which is vital to spacecraft navigation, as well as Earth-bound navigation in the form of GPS systems, JPL said in a written statement.

It was launched into orbit in the summer of 2019 onboard  General Atomics’ Orbital Test Bed spacecraft with a one-year mission in mind. But the mission was extended for an additional year due to the “exceptional timekeeping stability” it demonstrated, becoming the most accurate space-based clock ever.

The over-achieving instrument was powered down on Sept. 18, according to JPL.

Principal Project Investigator and Project Manager Todd Ely of JPL described the mission as a “resounding success.”

“The gem of the story here is that the technology demonstration operated well past its intended operational period,” he said.

A highly stable and reliable timekeeping device is vital to navigating in deep space, JPL Atomic Clock Physicist Eric Burt explained. Improved performance of space-based clocks could also improve the accuracy of other technologies, such as GPS satellites, which depend on precise timekeeping to work.

“The Deep Space Atomic Clock succeeded in this goal,” Burt said.

“We have achieved a new record for long-term atomic clock stability in space – more than an order of magnitude better than GPS atomic clocks,” he continued. “This means that we now have the stability to allow for more autonomy in deep space missions and potentially make GPS satellites less dependent on twice-daily updates if they carried our instrument.”

The Deep Space Atomic Clock can keep time with less than four nanoseconds of deviation over 20 days of operation, according to JPL.

With the lessons learned through the Deep Space Clock, a second device called the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 is being prepared to fly to Venus aboard NASA’s VERITAS mission, scheduled to launch in 2028.

“Like its predecessor, the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 will be a tech demo, meaning that VERITAS will not depend on it to fulfill its goals,” the JPL statement said. “But this next iteration will be smaller, use less power, and be designed to support a multi-year mission like VERITAS.”

NASA Science and Technology Mission Directorate Technology Demonstrations Director Trudy Kortes said the mission was “a remarkable accomplishment” by the JPL team.

“The technology demonstration has proven to be a robust system in orbit, and we are now looking forward to seeing an improved version go to Venus,” she said. “This is what NASA does: We develop new technologies and enhance existing ones to advance human and robotic spaceflight. The Deep Space Atomic Clock truly has the potential to transform how we explore deep space.”

More information on the Deep Space Clock is available online at jpl.nasa.gov/missions/deep-space-atomic-clock-dsac.

Related:

JPL’s Space-Based Atomic Clock Achieves Accuracy Record

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