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What Could NASA’s Atomic Clock Mean for Space Tourism?

What Could NASA’s Atomic Clock Mean for Space Tourism?
NASA Astronaut Tracy Dyson enjoys a view of the Earth from Orbit , Photo Credit: Nasa

The deep space clock was deployed on June 25, but we’re still thinking about its potential for the future of travel

Nayanika Mukherjee
July 31 , 2019
04 Min Read

We’re not scientists here. But it’s difficult to not feel excited when small things are capable of turning huge, huge tables. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California recently launched a trial demonstration of their Deep Space Atomic Clock. No bigger than a toaster oven, the clock, in a nutshell, is technology that will allow spacecrafts to navigate themselves. This means the ability to travel through deep space without requiring the constant relay of information from Earth. The instrument’s going to (ideally) float around in our orbit for a year, before it becomes a mainstay for future missions. 

Posters released by NASA celebrating the launch of the deep space atomic clockYou might remember that our June 2019 edition discussed the future of travel. With companies like SpaceX, Virgin Atlantic and Blue Origin being dead serious about sending tourists into space, it seems only fair to carry the tune forward. NASA, too, announced the introduction of private trips to the ISS from next year, for a daring $35,000 per night. And not to forget, one of the pioneers from last year: Orion Span's Aurora Station, slated to launch in 2021. While holidaying among the stars is still something only in the range of oil tycoons and entertainment giants, we’re not averse to a bit of science-meets-fancy.

If the atomic clock demonstration proves to be successful, here’s what we think (and hope!) can follow in future decades:

> Current spacecrafts don’t have their own GPS system, and depend on atomic clocks overseen by navigation teams on Earth to determine their location data. Similar to how your GPS’ efficiency depends on your phone’s signal speed in connection to a satellite, the farther a spacecraft travels from Earth, the longer it takes for communication. If NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock could sit onboard your, ahem, tourist ship, it could determine its own interstellar location. Think of it like a concierge with their own sense of agency, without having to constantly consult the hotel manager. While we’d definitely be too awestruck to feel bothered by such delays, any time saved is great; in case of emergency scenarios in orbit, a few minutes could make all the difference. It’s not like we have an interstellar tourism guide to draw from, anyway. 

> The precision of these clocks could help curate space trips better. “A clock that is off by even a single second could mean the difference between landing on Mars and missing it by miles,” says NASA. Veering ridiculously off course is unlikely, though, as the Deep Space Atomic Clock’s shown itself to be ‘up to 50 times more stable than the atomic clocks on GPS satellites’. Confucius did say the journey mattered more than the destination, but we’re sure you’d want a tight baseline for your first galactic itinerary. Imagine the horror when you pack for cold desert conditions, only to land up on a river of methane? If the opportunity does arrive in this lifetime, I’d definitely add Saturn’s outer rings to the list.

> Space tourism is an obvious stepping stone to settlements beyond Earth, and we like to think that these journeys would one day allow for pit stops a la The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The clock’s precision is meant bring an elevated level of safety (relative to current spacecrafts) and detail for journeys beyond orbit, and could help kickstart the process of inexpensive travel from the surface of the Earth, to low earth orbit.

Mark Shuttleworth, one of the world's few space tourists, aboard the ISS

While NASA may be unintentionally leading the charge for space tourism, remember that there’s no last-minute business here. The human body isn’t built to instantly survive space. Astronauts constantly exercise and relearn simple physical movements, so that the gravity-deprived muscle loss they experience beyond orbit doesn’t make their bodies crumple on the ride home. Nevertheless, if you’re keen on the idea and training, and have a few million to spare, Space Adventures is the only company that’s successfully sent private citizens to space. To sample their spacewalks, circumlunar missions and more, see spaceadventures.com.


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