Astronauts Test Out Sextants to See if the Seafaring Tool Can Be Useful in Space

Saturday, 23 June 2018 - 4:25PM
Space
Technology
Saturday, 23 June 2018 - 4:25PM
Astronauts Test Out Sextants to See if the Seafaring Tool Can Be Useful in Space
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YouTube/NASA Johnson
There's a lot of parallels between ocean voyages and space voyages, mostly revolving around their shared trait of "trained professionals cramped inside a mobile vessel in the middle of nowhere". 

So perhaps it's no surprise that NASA has been interested in a classic ship navigational tool for some time, with astronauts bringing along sextants as far back as their Gemini missions in the early 1960s which predate the Apollo missions. As a tool which can accurately measure distance between two objects (like stars), it seems like a no-brainer to try them out in space.

Even so, since NASA typically has more scientific resources than the average seafaring vessel, and is often directly monitoring their spacecrafts at any given time, the sextant has never seemed entirely necessary. So it's only recently that a renewed interest in sextants has arisen at the space agency, in the hopes that they can "upgrade" the old-fashioned tool for more efficient use in deep space.

The new Sextant Navigation for Exploration Missions investigation hopes to do just that. Below, you can see astronaut Alexander Gerst (who just returned to the International Space Station earlier this month) trying one out:



With the help of current ISS astronauts like Gerst, the investigation is hoping to test out specific techniques that wouldn't work on ground level, in the hopes that a souped-up sextant could serve as an emergency tool on future spacecrafts like Orion in case NASA ever lost contact with it. The ISS crew isn't likely to ever get lost (all they need to do is look down at Earth to see where they are), but they're the only ones who can run these tests.

The investigation's principal investigator, Greg Holt from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas, explained it this way in an official statement from the space agency:

Opening quote
"The basic concepts are very similar to how it would be used on Earth. But particular challenges on a spacecraft are the logistics; you need to be able to take a stable sighting through a window. We're asking the crew to evaluate some ideas we have on how to accomplish that and to give us feedback and perhaps new ideas for how to get a stable, clean sight. That's something we just can't test on the ground."
Closing quote


Holt goes on to say that there's no need to "reinvent the wheel when it comes to celestial navigation", since explorers have known how to navigate via the stars in the night sky for nearly as long as we've been exploring. But we've had few opportunities to refine deep space navigation, which we may soon resume as the eventual first mission to Mars comes closer to reality.

After all, if the fancy technology fails you in deep space, the least you can do is look through an old-timey telescope to get yourself where you need to be.

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