WASHINGTON — Vector Atomic, a California-based startup, worked with Honeywell Aerospace to produce a cutting-edge navigation sensor that uses an atomic clock to take precise measurements without relying on GPS.

The atomic sensor, funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, was delivered in August and is awaiting a ride to space, Vector Atomic’s CEO Jamil Abo-Shaeer, told SpaceNews.

Abo-Shaeer, a former project manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, co-founded Vector Atomic in 2018 with the goal of fielding and commercializing atomic instruments. 

The company in 2020 was selected by DIU to build an atomic sensor — a device that exploits the quantum properties of atoms to make very precise measurements — that could survive the rigors of space. 

Abo-Shaeer said Vector Atomic has no venture capital funding. After winning the DIU contract that provided about $10 million in government funds, the company partnered with Honeywell to build an atomic inertial navigation sensor, qualify it for space flight and integrate it with a satellite bus.

Inertial navigation devices have been around for decades but the atomic variant is a more complex technology that has only existed in labs, said Abo-Shaeer.

Inertial navigation systems use motion sensors, or accelerometers, and rotation sensors known as gyroscopes to continuously calculate the position, orientation, and velocity of a moving object without the need for external references like GPS. 

Atomic sensors that use atomic clocks are more precise but they’ve only been tested in laboratories and are very fragile, he said. DIU’s project is about figuring out if these devices can be made robust enough for deployment in real-world systems. 

And the best way to answer that, said Abo-Shaeer, is to send one of these sensors into the harshest environment, which is outer space, after putting it through the rigors of space launch. 

The problem with current technology

Inertial navigation devices used today in air, maritime, ground and space platforms are “incredibly good and incredibly robust” at providing short-term position, velocity and attitude data, he said. Over time, however, small errors in measurement accumulate, causing inertial navigation systems to drift. This means they cannot provide accurate position data for extended periods without external updates from GPS or other systems.

Quantum sensors that use atomic clocks improve accuracy and don’t drift over time like conventional systems, which makes them desirable for military applications, said Abo-Shaeer.

“They come calibrated out of the box and they stay calibrated,” he said. “The atomic systems will drift as well but you can navigate longer. They’re not doing anything fundamentally different from current technology. They’re just potentially doing it better.”

When the atomic sensor reaches orbit, it will operate autonomously. “It turns itself on, takes measurements, and pushes data back down to the ground,” said Abo-Shaeer.

Launch date TBD

Lt. Col. Nicholas Estep, program manager at DIU, said he could not discuss the specifics of the space mission that will fly Vector Atomic’s sensor, or the projected date for the launch.

The recent delivery of the quantum sensor marks a “compelling milestone for the quantum sensing community,” he told SpaceNews. “Atomic clocks have been flying on GPS for a long time, but other than atomic clocks, other forms of quantum sensing have not materialized outside the lab.”

The physics and the phenomenology of quantum sensing is “fun and very exciting,” said Estep. What DIU is doing is moving the technology to the next phase, which is systems engineering and prototyping.

“What we’ve shown so far is that you can put it together in an integrated package that’s actually reliable and can go through the rigors of qualification,” Estep said. 

“We’ve gone through the qualification in order to be manifested and incorporated into a space demonstration,” he added. “We’ve delivered an actual experimental payload that has an atomic gyroscope.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...