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NASA has so many spacecraft at Mars that it's a challenge to communicate with them all, but technology being launched later this month could eliminate that problem in the future.
That technology is the Deep Space Atomic Clock, a test system that NASA has been developing for two decades. It's meant to help spacecraft navigate and communicate without the need for so much support from Earth. The STP-2 mission, scheduled to launch onboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on June 24, will conduct the clock's first test in space.
Spacecraft - Space - Today - Relies - Navigation
"Every single spacecraft exploring deep space today relies on navigation that's performed back here at Earth to tell it where it is and, much more importantly, where it's going," Jill Seubert, a deep-space navigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said during a news conference held on June 10. "We have to navigate from Earth because the clocks onboard spacecraft are really not good at accurately measuring time, but if we can change that, we can revolutionize the way that we can navigate deep space."
And that's where the Deep Space Atomic Clock comes in. Like atomic clocks that won't be traveling to space, it can measure time to a billionth of a second — but it takes up the space of a gallon jug, not of a refrigerator. That miniaturization means the instrument can be loaded onto a spacecraft and launched.
Space - Clock - Time - Intervention - Earth
Once in space, the clock should be able to keep time accurately without any intervention from Earth. That's a stark contrast to the clocks on modern GPS satellites, which have to be corrected twice a day to remain on time. But accurate time-keeping is vital for spacecraft navigation, Seubert said.
"Tracking a spacecraft as it travels through space is fundamentally a problem of measuring time," she said. "We can't just pull out a...
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