Yesterday at 2:30 a.m. EST, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying with it a variety of really interesting NASA tech. This mission, dubbed STP-2, has several objectives for NASA. The space agency will be testing a safer type of rocket fuel, the resiliency of electronics against radiation, and an incredibly precise atomic clock that could be a game-changer for future space missions. That last bit is especially interesting.
A BIT ON ATOMIC CLOCKS Atomic clocks came about when scientists realized that time could be measured more precisely by tracking the movements of something more consistent and not so influenced by outside forces. That something was the atom.
Because all atoms inherently have oscillation frequencies defined by the mechanical nature of the atom itself, atomic clocks are based on the observable oscillations of substances on an atomic scale, specifically the transition between two energy states of an atom. Atomic clocks have existed in one form or another since the late ‘40s, but it wasn’t until we began to use cesium 133–an isotope of the element cesium–as our oscillation source that we achieved the accuracy we see today with modern atomic clocks (there are some atomic clocks that feature less precise designs based on hydrogen and rubidium.)
Atomic clocks do not rely on atomic decay, so they’re not radioactive. Rather, they measure the number of times the atom switches between states to relay time, and since 1967 the International System of Units has defined the second as the time that elapses during 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation that is produced by the transition of cesium 133 between two energy levels.
For an even deeper dive on atomic clocks, click here.
NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock was developed by the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and it is not unlike the atomic clocks we have right here on Earth or the ones that fly on satellites and are responsible for GPS, but the Deep Space Atomic Clock is expected to be 50 times more stable in its timekeeping than comparable clocks. If the test proves successful, this new clock, which has been miniaturized for the purposes of space travel, could open up greater possibilities for long-term space exploration by creating more autonomous systems that will assist in navigation (by the way, autonomous navigation via atomic clocks is something we already do).
To learn more, click here.