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A GPS for satellites: NASA successfully tests navigation using pulsars

Friday, January 12th, 2018 | bitcoin updates

    Artistic representation of a pulsar
                (Image: NASA)
             Researchers have tested a technique that would allow space probes to autonomously orient themselves and make them more independent of Earth. They resorted to pulsars as cosmic lighthouses. The accuracy was much better than expected.


        NASA researchers have successfully tested a system that allows satellites to autonomously position their satellites. Although it may take years for the system to become operational, the demonstration is a "breakthrough for exploring the interplanetary space," explains research director Jason Mitchell. He is responsible for the SEXTANT project (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), which used the experiment NICER (Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer) on board the ISS. This could determine his position for eight hours mostly on 3 miles (just under 5 miles) – targeted accuracy was 10 miles.
Pulsars are extremely fast rotating neutron stars that emit regularly recurring signals. For their experiment, the researchers selected four such pulsars that emit X-rays at our millisecond frequency in our direction. Nicer measured her position in the sky and used it to calculate her own position as she raced around the earth aboard the ISS. Following the same principle as the global GPS with its satellites, these celestial bodies served as cosmic lighthouses, on the basis of which future probes could orient themselves. The pulsars are also so stable that their frequency can be predicted for years to come.
Orientation inside and outside the solar system While GPS and similar systems such as the European Galileo on Earth allow for accurate positioning to the meter, pulsar navigation researchers expect accuracy to be a few dozen or a few hundred meters accurate. That would be sufficient considering the immense distances in space and would allow probes to navigate independently of the earth. The technology would be available not only in the solar system, but also beyond. However, the necessary sensors would now have to be downsized, made more energy-efficient and more sensitive, because Nicer, for example, was the size of a refrigerator and thus far too large for a research probe.




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