Dead stars could be the future of spacecraft navigation

Oct 09, 2012
A pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star, is the collapsed super-dense core of a massive star that has blown off its outer layers in a supernova. It casts out narrow beams of energy as it rotates. Credit: Victor Habbick, Visions/Science Photo Library

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the University of Leicester have been commissioned by the European Space Agency (ESA) to investigate the feasibility of using dead stars to navigate spacecraft in deep space. The findings of the research will advise ESA strategy and if feasible this technique may in future revolutionise the way spacecraft navigate in the outer Solar System and beyond.

Spacecraft navigation currently relies on between a distant craft and a network of ground-stations on Earth. This means that the craft has to wait for an instruction from Earth to guide it through space and with the large distances involved this could take hours, days or even longer. This time delay affects a spacecraft's ability to react rapidly according to its location. Furthermore, the ground infrastructure is increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain due to the size of the .

Scientists at NPL and the University of Leicester are exploring the use of X-rays from dead stars, called pulsars, to allow spacecraft to navigate autonomously. Pulsars are highly compact and rapidly that emit intense observed as pulses, similar to the rotating beam of light seen from a light house. In some cases these pulses can be highly regular, making them suitable sources for navigation using a technique similar to GPS.

"Using on-board X-ray detectors, spacecraft could measure the times of pulses received from pulsars to determine the position and motion of the craft. The University of Leicester will use their experience in X-ray astronomy to come-up with potential designs of the device and NPL will develop timing and navigation algorithms to determine the potential accuracy of this technique. Funding received from ESA will allow us to investigate the feasibility of using these and the potential navigation performance that could be derived," says Setnam Shemar, leading the project on behalf of NPL's Time and Frequency Team.

The traditional form of ground-based space navigation can only support a limited number of spacecraft as only one set of measurements can be processed at any one time. If feasible, this new technique could allow a greater number of complex space missions to take place simultaneously in deep space as craft become capable of navigating themselves.

Results from the investigation will advise ESA on technical strategy and if successful, pulsar navigation could in the long-term reduce costs and limitations associated with ground-based technology. Such a method, using pulsars as nature's own GPS in space, might one day enable humanity to navigate far beyond the outer reaches of our Solar System.

Explore further: Heavy metal frost? A new look at a Venusian mystery

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA to fly atomic clock to improve space navigation

Apr 11, 2012

(Phys.org) -- When people think of space technologies, many think of high-tech solar panels, complex and powerful propulsion systems or sophisticated, electronic guidance systems. Another critical piece of ...

NASA to test new atomic clock

Oct 17, 2011

When people think of space technologies, many think of solar panels, propulsion systems and guidance systems. One important piece of technology in spaceflight is an accurate timing device.

Laying the basis for gravitational wave detection

Jun 27, 2012

Astronomers have long relied on light waves to provide information about astrophysical objects. The hunt for gravitational waves, highly sought after but terribly elusive, should get a boost from theoretical ...

Recommended for you

Heavy metal frost? A new look at a Venusian mystery

8 hours ago

Venus is hiding something beneath its brilliant shroud of clouds: a first order mystery about the planet that researchers may be a little closer to solving because of a new re-analysis of twenty-year-old ...

Hot explosions on the cool sun

14 hours ago

(Phys.org) —The Sun is more spirited than previously thought. Apart from the solar eruptions, huge bursts of particles and radiation from the outer atmosphere of our star, also the cooler layer right below ...

Europe secures new generation of weather satellites

14 hours ago

Contracts were signed today to build three pairs of MetOp Second Generation satellites, ensuring the continuity of essential information for global weather forecasting and climate monitoring for decades to ...

User comments : 0