Fifteen years into the future, AccuBeat predicts that its Ultra-Stable Oscillator (USO) is still functioning as it floats in deep space. And while telling the time in space is anything but simple, that’s precisely what the space tech company is all about. The Jerusalem-based company builds tiny, precise clocks for deep-space missions and several defense applications, including radar, intelligence gathering and missile detection. While its Earth-based atomic clocks have nanosecond precision, its space-bound USOs are accurate to 10 to the minus 14th power of a second and are the best of their kind in the Universe. .
“Our compact atomic clocks are highly accurate and stable, operating with an accuracy of 50 nanoseconds per hour, or 50 parts of a billion. It’s a million times more accurate than our watches. These types of clocks are intended for military, cyber and homeland security applications,” AccuBeat co-founder Benny Levy told CTech in an interview. The company was founded in 1994 by Dr. Avinoam Stern and Levy, and began as “a garage operation,” Levy says. And then one day the US Air Force wanted to buy the company’s atomic clocks for undisclosed defense projects, and the rest is history. The company then moved to Hi-Tech Har-Hotzvim Park in Jerusalem. Now, AccuBeat has been supplying the US Air Force with its atomic clocks for 20 years, and also powers Israeli Air Force jets and Israeli Navy submarines as well as drones.
Missile detection and more
There are several defensive applications for atomic clocks, Levy relayed. The first involves secure communication and is used so that enemies cannot resume a conversation. Radio networks often hop from one frequency to another within a second, so enemies cannot jam or breach the secure network. But providing secure transmission requires extremely precise clock synchronization. And it can be used for planes that want to communicate with missiles or a combat center. Another application is communications intelligence, where soldiers can listen to enemy conversations from 200 km away and detect where they are. “If the clock is very accurate – up to 3.3 nanoseconds, say, then we can triangulate enemy communication with meter accuracy,” Levy said.
In the use of electronic intelligence, soldiers can detect where an enemy is hiding a missile. To avoid destruction by fighter jets, enemy fighters will shield their missiles and conceal their location by placing a small radar device to detect oncoming aircraft. The atomic clock can detect radars, which transmit certain information via radio waves by detecting all transmitted signals and triangulating enemy radars. This application saves air forces from deploying multiple bombers and can locate enemy missiles with a single aircraft, he said.
Another application concerns radionavigation. GPS systems also contain an atomic clock in their ground segments which transmits a signal to the satellite to synchronize the exact time. This helps GPS systems know exactly where a person is and at what exact time. However, in the age of piracy, these can also be jammed or “spoofed”, he said, causing them to emit a false signal, with a false location and a false time. Such a cyberattack could alter an aircraft’s course and change location, causing a pilot to be strayed and lost, or ships at sea. However, the AccuBeat Atomic Clock can see through the “spoofing” and project the correct time. It can also be used for multi-stage radar solutions, to detect the number of approaching aircraft.
And finally, when it comes to homeland security concerns, clocks can be used to protect critical infrastructure, such as financial systems and power grids. “When someone buys shares in a company, they don’t get the same rate, so an atomic clock can detect the exact time a person bought or sold shares and at what rate. They can also be used by banks that can pinpoint the exact time a transaction was made.Since these processes are all automated by machines, they need atomic clocks to fine-tune how they perform millions of operations per second, he added.
And AccuBeat also plans to head for the stars. He is involved – alongside Dr. Yohai Kaspi and Dr. Eli Galanti of the Weizmann Institute of Science and sponsored by the Israel Space Agency (ISA) – in building the ultra-stable oscillator for the Agency’s JUICE mission. space on the icy moons of Jupiter. Scientists aim to detect if life can be found under the icy surface of Jupiter’s moons – Europa, Ganymede, Callisto.
“We wonder if we are alone in the Universe? Is there another suitable habitat for life? asked Levy. The mission is far from simple and involves sending a spacecraft some 900 million km into deep space, which will take seven and a half years to reach Jupiter and its moons. “That’s six times the distance between Earth and the Sun,” Levy added. “The clock we built has to work well for 15 years, and we have to make sure it’s very accurate, stable, and everything is fine.”
The clock is currently installed on the JUICE spacecraft and will launch in April 2023. Once it reaches the moons, it will transmit a signal back to Earth. Scientists will measure how long it took to transmit this signal through Jupiter’s atmosphere. By decoding the transit time of this signal, scientists will be able to measure and decipher the chemical signature of Jupiter’s atmosphere.
But it’s a long wait, Levy surmises. It is not until 2030 that the group will begin to process research results. If that doesn’t sound wacky enough, NASA has other missions underway that may also require AccuBeat’s clocks, some of which seem even more science fiction than reality. For example, the agency plans to land a spacecraft on the surface of these moons and send a nuclear missile to punch a small hole in the ice and penetrate the surface. This missile then plans to deploy a tiny unmanned submarine to explore the liquid surroundings, looking for extraterrestrial life.
The company also has its atomic clocks installed in ESA’s Galileo global navigation satellite system, and many others in various locations around the world. “We have over 100 clocks around the world, from Hawaii to China and the Far East,” Levy added.
Several major Israeli defense companies attempted to acquire AccuBeat before Rafael Advanced Defense Systems eventually acquired 50% of the company’s shares. And due to security constraints, Levy cannot give details of the multiple defense projects in which AccuBeat clocks are involved, with the exception of Israel’s famous Iron Dome missile defense system. Additionally, AccuBeat’s anti-spoofing technology is currently being developed to better protect ships at sea from hacking. To this effect, the company is also planning to open a spin-off called KadaBeat.
AccuBeat is located in Jerusalem, employs 62 people, and plans to expand over the next year by hiring more ultra-Orthodox employees who live in the area and seek careers in technology. “They’re very bright – both at Talmud and when it comes to software, and we’ll be happy to have more on board,” Levy said.
As for what makes the Israeli space tech ecosystem so unique, Levy thinks it has something to do with the fact that Israelis are adept at spotting a need in the market and creating unique technology to meet that need. “When we started making our clocks, the market was very small but has grown. I also think we are very good at developing deep technologies for deep space missions. These space missions need the best clock in the world.And I think our uniqueness lies in how we innovate high quality technology at lower cost.