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Work Underway on Deep Space Atomic Clock

(Source: NASA)

Baseball legend, Yogi Berra, made this timeless quip:

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.

Over the decades, NASA has been a milestone-making agency, known worldwide for precision “get there” navigation of spacecraft to distant worlds. But the pursuit of even more accuracy to carry out on-the-spot landings on Mars, or to dispatch a probe to an ultra-precise touchdown on an asteroid, is on the agenda for NASA’s Space Technology Program.

NASA is preparing to fly a small, low-mass Deep Space Atomic Clock, or DSAC–a next-generation technology that can greatly improve deep space navigation and radio science.

While cesium and rubidium atomic clocks are in use on satellites in Earth orbit–specifically in the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation–there are no atomic clocks onboard interplanetary spacecraft.

“What this project is really about is changing the way we do our navigation,” says Todd Ely, principal investigator of the Deep Space Atomic Clock Technology Demonstration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We’re building an atomic clock that is a very small package, just a handful of kilograms in size.”

The DSAC is being readied for launch into Earth’s orbit in 2015. This demonstration mission would validate the very heart of the hardware: a miniaturized mercury-ion atomic clock.

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