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Cryptocurrency Bitcoin This Atomic Clock Will Transform Deep Space Exploration


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Cryptocurrency Bitcoin This Atomic Clock Will Transform Deep Space Exploration

It was 2:30 in the morning when astronautical engineer Todd Ely watched as a little atomic clock—the size of a four-slice toaster—was launched into space on a satellite attached to one of the most powerful rockets in the world. He distinctly remembers a bright flash and a beating vibration that lasted long after the light…

Cryptocurrency  Bitcoin This Atomic Clock Will Transform Deep Space Exploration

Cryptocurrency Bitcoin

It was 2:30 in the morning when astronautical engineer Todd Ely watched as a little atomic clock—the size of a four-slice toaster—was launched into space on a satellite attached to one of the most powerful rockets in the world. He distinctly remembers a bright flash and a beating vibration that lasted long after the light went dim. “You feel it in your chest,” he recalls.

Also at the site was Ely’s colleague Eric Burt, a physicist who is an expert on atomic clocks. Despite all of the shake tests they had performed beforehand to ensure their delicate device could endure the journey into space, the violence of the launch left Burt in disbelief. “The whole Earth shakes,” he remembers. “I watched it from three miles away, thinking: How is our little clock going to ever survive?”

But it did. Ely and Burt are two leaders of the Deep Space Atomic Clock project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and in September—more than two years after the clock’s deployment into low Earth orbit—the clock’s satellite was powered off, marking the end of its first mission. It’s the most precise clock to ever operate in space, and it’s paving the way for making real-time navigation of the cosmos a reality. “A robust onboard navigation system is going to be a fundamental component to human exploration beyond Earth,” says Ely, the project’s principal investigator. “And our clock can play a role in that.”

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Atomic clocks, like every other kind, start with an oscillator: something that vibrates. “It could be as simple as a pendulum arm swinging, or it could be a quartz crystal like you have in your watch or iPhone,” Burt says. The frequency of that vibration, or how many oscillations occur in a second, is how clocks keep time, or tick.

But oscillators are fickle—the stability of their frequency degrades over time, a phenomenon known as drift. So, Burt says, atomic clocks pair an oscillator with a collection of atoms to help keep that frequency stable. (This clock uses mercury, but others have used cesium, rubidium, or strontium.) Atoms are made up of electrons circling a nucleus, and these electrons can exist only in specific, discrete orbits, based on how much energy they have. To jump into higher orbits, the electrons must be given energy of just the right frequency. That means scientists can monitor the stability of their clocks by observing the activity of the atoms it is paired with. “One way to envision it is that the atomic portion is just a steering wheel on the oscillator,” says Burt. “If it’s at the right frequency, then you get a lot of atoms jumping around. If it’s at the wrong frequency, nothing happens.”

In June, the team published a paper in Nature reporting that their clock has extremely low drift, corresponding to a deviation of less than four billionths of a second over the course of 23 days. “At this rate, the time over which this clock would lose a second is 1,000 years,” says Burt. This is much better than other clocks currently operating in space, which would be off by a second after about 90 years, although ground-based clocks are still ten to 100 times more accurate. “We would have been happy just to demonstrate operability,” he says. “Frankly, if we had turned it on and it worked, and then failed 10 minutes later, we’d be dancing in the streets.” But it accomplished a lot more than

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