NASA, last week, announced in web post that it has developed a new type of autonomous space navigation based on the X-rays emitted by pulsars. Enough to revolutionize the ability to fly robotic spacecraft to the confines of the solar system, and beyond.
A recent demonstration of the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology — or SEXTANT — conducted by NASA researchers, reveals that millisecond pulsars could be used to accurately determine the location of an object. moving in space, like a ship or a probe. It could be a whole new space navigation system similar to our satellite geolocation systems (GPS) here on Earth.
“This demonstration is a breakthrough for future deep space exploration,” says Jason Mitchell, SEXTANT Project Manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “As the first to demonstrate X-ray navigation fully autonomously and in real-time in space, we are now leading the way,” he added. This technology now allows for a new option for deep space navigation that could work in conjunction with existing space-based radio and optical systems.
Although it is still a few years before the maturation of an X-ray navigation system for spacecraft, the fact that NASA engineers have proved that this could be possible bodes well for future interplanetary travel, which would then see gears autonomously determine their locations outside the current global land navigation networks.
“Although it could take a few years to mature an X-ray navigation system practical for use on deep-space spacecraft, the fact that NASA engineers proved it could be done bodes well for future interplanetary space travel. Such a system provides a new option for spacecraft to autonomously determine their locations outside the currently used Earth-based global navigation networks because pulsars are accessible in virtually every conceivable fight regime, from low-Earth to deepest space,” the post continues.
The advantage is that pulsars are everywhere. They are rapidly rotating, magnetized neutron stars resulting from the explosion and collapse of massive star. When they spin on themselves, these ancient stars emit electromagnetic radiation, so much so that for a well-positioned observer, they can appear as a sort of cosmic lighthouse. Pulsars are also extraordinarily regular — their regularity can rival that of atomic clocks — since milliseconds pulsars can turn on themselves hundreds of times per second.
The team is now rolling up their sleeves to refine the system. Researchers will update and refine their software for another experiment in a few months. “Now that the team has demonstrated the system, Winternitz said the team will focus on updating and fine-tuning both flight and ground software in preparation for a second experiment later in 2018. The ultimate goal, which may take years to realize, would be to develop detectors and other hardware to make pulsar-based navigation readily available on future spacecraft,” the post says.