In the past, NASA tracked time on board its spacecraft using what it calls a “two-way” method in which ground-based antenna measures how long a ping takes to reach the craft and how far it has to go. But now, thanks to the deployment of a brand-new atomic clock on board the Surrey Orbital Test Bed spacecraft, the space agency will be able to tell time in the heavens more accurately than ever before.
That’s because the clock uses “one-way” tracking in which the measurements are taken on board “and processed with a spacecraft-based navigation system to determine the path and whether any maneuvers are needed to stay on course,” NASA wrote today. This is big. “This will be a key advance for safely navigating future human exploration of the solar system by providing astronauts with their position and velocity when they need it,” NASA wrote. “It will lighten the load on the antennas in NASA’s Deep Space Network, allowing more spacecraft to be tracked with a single antenna.”