How interstellar beacons could help future astronauts find their way across the universe

April 2, 2012
How interstellar beacons could help future astronauts find their way across the universe
Artist’s impression of pulsar-based navigation in deep space. The characteristic time signatures of strongly magnetised and fast spinning neutron stars, called pulsars, are used as natural navigation beacons to determine the position and velocity of a spacecraft. Credit: Pictures of spaceships: Rosetta (courtesy of ESA), Star Trek spaceship Enterprise.

( -- The use of stars, planets and stellar constellations for navigation was of fundamental importance for mankind for thousands of years. Now a group of scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany have developed a new technique using a special population of stars to navigate not on Earth, but in voyages across the universe. Team member Prof. Werner Becker presented their work at the National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester on Friday 30 March.

Have you ever asked yourself how the starship Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek found its way through the depths of space? Cosmic lighthouses called pulsars might be the key to this interstellar navigation - not only in science fiction but also in the near future of space flight.

When stars much more massive than our Sun reach the end of their lives, their final demise is marked by a dramatic supernova explosion that destroys most of the star. But many leave behind compact, incredibly dense remnants known as neutron stars. Those detected have strong magnetic fields that focus emission into two highly directional beams. The neutron star rotates rapidly and if the beam points in the direction of the Earth we see a pulse of radiation at extremely regular intervals – hence the name pulsar.

Prof. Becker and his team are developing a novel navigation technology for spacecraft based on the regular emission of X-ray light from pulsars. Their periodic signals have timing stabilities comparable to atomic clocks and provide characteristic time signatures that can be used as natural navigation beacons, similar to the use of GPS satellites for navigation on .

By comparing the arrival times of the pulses measured on board the navigator spacecraft with those predicted at a reference location, the spacecraft position can be determined with an accuracy of few kilometres, everywhere in the solar system and far beyond.

At the moment even the fastest spacecraft would take thousands of years to travel to the nearest star and far longer to explore the wider Galaxy so we are unlikely to see journeys like this happen for many centuries. Nonetheless, the pulsar-based navigation system could be in use in the near future.

Professor Becker gives two examples: “These X-ray beacons could augment the existing GPS/Galileo satellite navigation systems and provide autonomous for interplanetary space probes and future manned missions to Mars.”

He adds: “Looking forward, it’s incredibly exciting to think that we have now the technology to chart our route to other stars and may even be able to help our descendants take their first steps into interstellar space.”

Explore further: PULSE: The Impact of European Pulsar Science on Modern Physics

Related Stories

Powerhouse in the Crab Nebula

March 29, 2012

MAGIC telescopes measure the highest-energy gamma rays from a pulsar to date, calling theory into question.

Fermi telescope unveils a dozen new pulsars

January 6, 2009

( -- NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has discovered 12 new gamma-ray-only pulsars and has detected gamma-ray pulses from 18 others. The finds are transforming our understanding of how these stellar cinders ...

Pulsars: The Universe's gift to physics

February 19, 2012

Pulsars, superdense neutron stars, are perhaps the most extraordinary physics laboratories in the Universe. Research on these extreme and exotic objects already has produced two Nobel Prizes. Pulsar researchers now are poised ...

Millisecond pulsar in spin mode

November 3, 2011

Astronomers have tracked down the first gamma-ray pulsar in a globular cluster of stars. It is around 27,000 light years away and thus also holds the distance record in this class of objects. Moreover, its high luminosity ...

NASA to test new atomic clock

October 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.

Recommended for you

NASA telescope studies quirky comet 45P

November 22, 2017

When comet 45P zipped past Earth early in 2017, researchers observing from NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, or IRTF, in Hawai'i gave the long-time trekker a thorough astronomical checkup. The results help fill in crucial ...

Cassini image mosaic: A farewell to Saturn

November 21, 2017

In a fitting farewell to the planet that had been its home for over 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft took one last, lingering look at Saturn and its splendid rings during the final leg of its journey and snapped a series ...

Uncovering the origins of galaxies' halos

November 21, 2017

Using the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea, researchers have identified 11 dwarf galaxies and two star-containing halos in the outer region of a large spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away from Earth. The findings, published ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2012
This is certainly not new. LaViolette introduced the idea in 2000, as recently referenced here by another poster who recalled his presentation. He has even written a book detailing his analysis. Pulsars did not fit his cosmological model, which forced his detailed investigation. He concluded that the non-random nature of many pulsar signals simply had to be artificial. And he proposed a mechanism whereby an advanced civilization could utilize neutron stars to produce these pulse trains. And he discusses how the various pulse modes could be used in inter-stellar navigation. So this is not new.

5 / 5 (3) Apr 03, 2012
When Pioneer 10 was sent into space, back in 1972, they thought that, sometime in the future, it may be captured by some allien intelligent beings. So, they put a plaque in the spacecraft, with some inscribed messages, with the hope that those allien beings will be able not only to notice the drawings but also to understand them.

One of those drawings was expected to be understood as a pulsar map, by giving their wavelength and period. Then, by figuring where in the universe those pulsars were to be seen in such angles and distances as on the drawing, the allien beings were expected to understand the point in space that the craft came from.

Obviously, this is a method for using the pulsars as a way to define one's position in space. I guess, it should also count as a very early proposal for using the pulsars for navigation in space.

The plaque of Pioneer 10:



not rated yet Apr 03, 2012
The Pioneer 10 Plaque thing was one of the most irrational communication attempts ever.

As I recall, they even put a record with music from different artists, and a sequence of prime numbers, or was that another craft?

Anyway, Prime numbers and pulsar map, fine, that could be decyphered eventually since it's a universal code, but lyrics and speech? No.

An alien would have no way of decyphering text or speech without visual or other sensory context clues. They will not know what "orange" or "apple" or "dog" or "cat" are, etc, as they will have no such fruits or organisms on their planet.

Most words will therefore have no initial meaning or interpretation to a species from another planet without some sort of video, or the actual "thing" there to lay hands and eyes on to know what it is.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 03, 2012
Have you ever asked yourself how the starship Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek found its way through the depths of space?


Cosmic lighthouses called pulsars might be the key to this interstellar navigation

Doubtful. As the Enterprise can travel many hundreds and even thousands of lightyears (Voyager was transported over 70,000 ly), those shifts in perspective would cancel out all pulsar signatures as viewed from Earth due to their highly directional nature. So in that context, pulsars would be useless.

If you're talking about solar system distances, then you might as well use normal star field maps for positioning as some probes already do.

not rated yet Apr 04, 2012
pulsar signals may not be super directional, but they also suffer from unpredicted glitches and are not completely stable, mostly gradually breaking. Over a period of thousands of years they could be pretty unpredictable in their phase. The pulsars are also moving through space themselves. Large antennas would be required to receive, which may not be too practical on a spacecraft.

Over hundreds or thousands of light years the same pulsars are probably detectable as on earth, but the problem will be the time difference.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2012
pulsar signals may not be super directional -Graeme

But they are very directional which does mean that unless the line of sight is just right, we would see no characteristic pulses. Even the article states -
Those detected have strong magnetic fields that focus emission into two highly directional beams. The neutron star rotates rapidly and if the beam points in the direction of the Earth we see a pulse of radiation at extremely regular intervals

Why then do you say they are not 'super directional'?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.