Dead stars ‘to guide spacecraft’

April 2, 2012 | Source: BBC News

Pulsar illustration (credit: NASA)

A method of very precise positioning anywhere in space using X-ray signals from pulsars is being developed by researchers at Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

These dense, burnt-out stars rotate rapidly, sweeping their emission across the cosmos at rates that are so stable they rival atomic clock performance.

This timing property is perfect for interstellar navigation, says the team.

If a spacecraft carried the means to detect the pulses, it could compare their arrival times with those predicted at a reference location. This would enable the craft to determine its position to an accuracy of just five kilometres anywhere in the galaxy.

Engineers will need to miniaturize the technology to make a practical pulsar navigation unit.

Prof. Werner Becker from the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics believes his navigation solution will be useful on Solar System probes, providing autonomous navigation for interplanetary missions, and perhaps for future manned ventures to Mars, where high performance systems will be an absolute requirement for safety reasons, and one day, across interstellar space.