What is NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock..and Why do We Need One to Travel in Space?

Keeping proper time is everything here on earth, especially in this digital age.  The whole world is very connected, one big neighborhood really. Without hyper accurate clocks here, our communications, schedules and even our travel would be off. {Because of a little theory that Albert Einstein postulated, we now have GPS…and that would certain not work without accurate timepieces.}

We have atomic clocks on earth that are based on the vibrations of Cesium atoms. Those super vibrations can keep time accurate to within 1 second in little over 1 million years!

With all that time accuracy here on the planet, we have to think about a comparable one in space for space travel. (We will answer the obvious question of why its necessary in just a moment, I promise, so hang in there with me.) NASA has constructed the Deep Space Atomic Clock just for that purpose, and it will launch Monday June 24th on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy mission. We heard today from the Principal Investigators for the Deep Space Atomic Clock, Jill Seubert and Todd Ely, both from the JPL in California. Here are some cool facts that I found out in today’s new conference:

Principal Investigator Todd Ely demonstrates a little about the NASA Deep Space Atomic Clock, which will launch on the SpaceX Falcon heavy soon. Photo credit: Dee Dean

Deep Space Atomic Clock Fast Facts

  • NASA now has the task of keeping time in space, much like seafaring explorers had to find a way to calculate longitude while at sea
  • This new deep space clock is exquisitely precise, only losing 1 second over 10 million years
  • It uses Mercury ions, much like a tuning fork
  • The Deep Space Atomic Clock is the size of a toaster, making it more practical and easier to send into space
  • It will change the paradigm of keeping location of a spacecraft in space from two-way to one-way. It uses signals from the craft to earth one way, or earth to craft 
  • Hence, tracking can get done faster and for more than one spacecraft
  • This is known as autonomous onboard navigation, like a self driving spacecraft
  • It is a safer and more robust way to navigate
  • Once launched, it will be turned on in August 2019
  • This clock is 50 times more stable than what is used for GPS on earth 

In addition, this device will enable NASA to:

  • Build GPS-like navigation systems for exploring other heavenly bodies in space


  • Support a continued human presence in space


  • Make it more accurate and safer for astronauts to travel into space, making sure that the land at intended targets


  • Support deep space communication satellite networks


  • Improve GPS navigation here on earth

If all goes as planned, the Deep space Atomic Clock will launch Monday night 6/24 for its trial year in space, and I can’t wait to see lift off in person!



One Reply to “What is NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock..and Why do We Need One to Travel in Space?”

  1. […] after they presented. I especially enjoyed hearing from Dr. Jill Seubert and Dr. Todd Ely about the Deep Space Atomic Clock. All of these men and women were fascinatingly brilliant, and yet they explained things to us in a […]

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