One of the countless complications of space travel I had never considered – better clocks. Via NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
Currently, most missions rely on ground-based antennas paired with atomic clocks for navigation. Ground antennas send narrowly focused signals to spacecraft, which, in turn, return the signal. NASA uses the difference in time between sending a signal and receiving a response to calculate the spacecraft’s location, velocity and path.
The DSAC project aims to provide accurate onboard timekeeping for future NASA missions. Spacecraft using this new technology would no longer have to rely on two-way tracking. A spacecraft could use a signal sent from Earth to calculate position without returning the signal and waiting for commands from the ground, a process that can take hours. Timely location data and onboard control allow for more efficient operations, more precise maneuvering and adjustments to unexpected situations.
This paradigm shift enables spacecraft to focus on mission objectives rather than adjusting their position to point antennas earthward to close a link for two-way tracking.