National Physical Laboratory

Optical clocks for space applications

NPL is playing a prominent role in a Europe-wide effort that aims to advance optical clock and optical frequency comb technology, with a view to making it fit for use in space missions within 10 years.

Space time

NPL has recently led a European Space Agency (ESA) study to examine potential space applications, and viability of these optical combs and clocks in particular space mission scenarios.

Optical frequency combs are able to measure and compare optical frequencies to high accuracy, and also down-convert such optical frequencies to the microwave region. They can also be used for time interval and distance measurements. The emergence of femtosecond optical combs several years ago led to Nobel prizes for the inventors in 2005, and the technology has quickly revolutionised the traditionally-difficult measurement of optical frequencies. They are now commonplace in standards laboratories such as NPL. When combined with the new cold atom and ion optical frequency standards, the possibilities for optical clocks with accuracies a factor of 10-100 better than microwave clocks are on offer.

However, this optical clock and comb technology is not yet developed enough for integration into space missions. NPL scientists, along with other European research teams, are actively working to accelerate its development to reach a technology readiness level suitable for use in future space missions.

Using optical frequency clock and comb technologies could greatly improve the accuracy and stability of measurement systems on spacecraft across a range of mission areas, including: Fundamental Physics, Navigation, Geoscience, Earth Observation, Formation Flying, and Planetary Science. NPL's considerable expertise in the field of optical frequency standards and metrology leave it very well placed to take a leading role in this ESA space clock development programme.

For further information, please contact Patrick Gill

Find out more about NPL's research in Optical Frequency Standards

Last Updated: 7 Jan 2013
Created: 12 Nov 2010


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