Frequency Electronics wins $20.3M mercury ion atomic clock contract

Frequency Electronics Inc. has won a $20.3 million contract to develop a next-generation atomic clock whose technology could be used to improve deep-space exploration as well as global positioning system navigation on Earth.

The contract from the Office of Naval Research calls for the company to develop a mercury ion atomic clock based on research from the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The maximum value of the competitive contract is based on a 24-month base period and a 24-month option followed by a 12-month option.

The Uniondale company will work with JPL and CalTech to continue development of the technology “and deliver pre-production prototypes,” Frequency Electronics chief executive Stanton Sloane said in a Monday statement.

Atomic clocks, which combine quartz crystal oscillation with measurement of atomic transitions, are used to synchronize television broadcasts, GPS satellites and missiles.

Though GPS satellites have atomic clocks onboard, current models require frequent correction from ground stations to maintain extreme accuracy.

Distant space missions pose an even bigger problem. Spacecraft typically rely on transmitting signals to ground-based atomic clocks multiple times to determine speed, location and trajectory.

The signals travel at the speed of light, but the distances of space mean a lag in round-trip communications. For instance, it takes from about 5 minutes to 20 minutes for a radio signal to travel from Earth to Mars.

A highly accurate onboard mercury ion atomic clock could keep a spacecraft on course with minimal intervention from Earth, according to NASA.

The space agency plans to include a demonstration mercury ion atomic clock on a mission to map Venus later this decade.

Shares of Frequency Electronics rose 6.5% to close Tuesday at $9.65.

Frequency Electronics posted net income of $497,000, or 5 cents per diluted share, on revenue of $12.9 million for the quarter ended Oct. 31.

Frequency Electronics’ precision timing devices are used in missiles, aerial drones, secure communications, mobile phone networks and electronic warfare.


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