NASA's New Deep-Space GPS Navigates on Its Own by Using Pulsars

Monday, 15 January 2018 - 11:08AM
Monday, 15 January 2018 - 11:08AM
NASA's New Deep-Space GPS Navigates on Its Own by Using Pulsars
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Image credit: YouTube

The problem with exploring space is that it's really hard to keep your bearings when you're entirely surrounded by nothingness.

While here on Earth, we've built a series of satellites that can talk to a computer in order to help it triangulate its position at all times, similar techniques don't work beyond our own world—which is one reason why astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) got left out of the big Pokémon GO craze of 2016.

NASA has been working to find a way to better navigate while in deep space, in order to keep track of where probes are, and help us to avoid losing our robotic space explorers when they leave behind all familiar stellar landmarks.

It's possible that we may now have a way to see this achieved—scientists have developed a system that will use X-ray sensors to find an object's location in space relative to a series of pulsars, fast-moving neutron stars that give off distinct invisible light.

The resulting creation is named SEXTANT, the Station Explorer for X-Ray Timing and Navigation Technology, because scientists love a weird acronym.

According to SEXTANT's project manager, Jason Mitchell:

Opening quote
"This demonstration is a breakthrough for future deep space exploration. As the first to demonstrate X-ray navigation fully autonomously and in real-time in space, we are now leading the way."
Closing quote

This new X-ray navigation technology has already been taken for a test-drive, albeit a fairly simple and easy one. The team behind SEXTANT pointed their machine at the stars in the hopes of being able to spot another oddly named piece of equipment, the NICER (Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer) telescope that is currently connected to the ISS.

Within eight hours, SEXTANT had NICER nailed down to within a ten mile radius, which may not sound all that impressive when compared with Earth-based GPS alternatives, but in the grand scheme of the cosmos, this is a pretty impressive achievement. If the technology works this well with objects that are further afield, we'll be able to see (relatively) where future probes are no matter where they travel.

Solving the issue of navigation within deep space is going to help open a lot of doors for future missions. This will allow NASA to be able to send probes further from home without worrying too much about them disappearing (as happens unfortunately often). Even satellites that are supposed to stay closer to home sometimes disappear - such was the case just last week when the mysterious Zuma spy satellite went missing after SpaceX attempted to put it into orbit.

With SEXTANT, it'll be easier to keep track of where things are in space, which will allow us to take greater risks in sending man-made structures further and further out among the stars, expanding our own reach and helping us to better understand the universe around us.

Now, if NASA can create the opposite device and provide a machine that helps us to triangulate the position of our car keys to with a few inches of their location, we'll all be even more ecstatic.