Add 14 digits to any clock in your house, and you will be able to measure one trillionth of a second. This is how extremely precise a timer developed in Europe will run aboard dozens of satellites. It is set to fly to the Moon, and its engineers hope to integrate it in the world’s largest particle accelerator one day.
The device features one of the best time-tagging technologies in the world. It was conceived by a small company in Latvia, and ESA has recognised its potential for future space missions. Eventech provides extreme timing accuracy using reliable and basic electronics. But how accurate? They are able to measure the time light takes to travel one centimetre.
“We are the Ferrari of the timers with the components of a tractor.”
Small and cheap, this timer paired with a computer brain has become very competitive in the market of laser ranging technology. The modest Latvian company is today the world leader in providing event timers for satellite laser ranging stations. It has take over 50% of the global market in this field.
More than 50 stations around the globe use this technology to pinpoint the exact location of satellites. The ground station sends a laser pulse to space and the satellite sends this pulse back to the station. Measuring the time it takes for the pulse to do the round trip allows to determine the precise distance.
Radiation-proof & Moon-bound
Each component of the timer has at least three layers of protection against radiation. A special coating makes the device resistant to damage or malfunctions caused by ionising radiation in space.
The device is part of one of the packages developed by ESA for flight to the Moon’s south pole on Russia’s Luna-27 lander in 2022. Neptec UK, based at Harwell, is teaming up with Eventech to get the flight model ready in just two years.
The timer will measure the exact time a pulse of light leaves the instrument and returns. “This allows us to build a 3D map to select the best landing site for the mission, avoiding uneven terrain or any large rocks,” explains Kerry Sanz, the project manager at Neptec.
Kerry and her team are working on the design of a “radar laser” or LIDAR that forms a critical part of the Luna-27 autonomous landing navigation system called PILOT.
“We are very excited – this is the first of a series of missions that could lead to a human base on the Moon and being able to land safely will be a key technology,” she adds.
Space solutions for Earth businesses
This leading-edge technology ‘made in Europe’ could travel all the way to the Moon and keep spinning off benefits to the population.
“We believe that there could be more applications for extreme radiation environments on Earth, such as nuclear power stations or the Large Hadron Collider,” says Adamovitch.
Other applications include time synchronization via optical channels, deep space laser communications and laser altimetry providing 3D information about the Earth’s surface.