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Forget GPS, Future Missions May Use Neutron Stars to Navigate Deep Space

Lighthouses have helped safely guide mariners for centuries. As space explorers consider traveling to far-flung destinations, could pulsars provide them with similar guidance?
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As NASA sets its sights on distant planets, astronauts will need a way of orienting themselves in space. Here on Earth, we use the satellite-based GPS that carry atomic clocks that provide extremely accurate time, which gets used by your phone or car to help calculate your position.

And while GPS works just fine if you’re on Earth or close to it, the signal weakens once you go beyond its range.

Historically, NASA has primarily used the Deep Space Network to track missions beyond Earth’s orbit. The three ground stations are approximately 120 degrees apart, and they beam up radio waves to a spacecraft and log details as the signals return. Navigation data is calculated on Earth and sent back, helping ground control keep missions on the right path.

But if that radio link with Earth is lost, a spacecraft can find itself adrift.

And so we need a better solution, like if a spacecraft could navigate independently, without ground control.

Enter: Pulsars.

Find out how neutron stars, pulsars, and a piece of equipment called the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, can help spacefaring explorers navigate space more effectively in this Elements.

#spaceexploration #NASA #astronauts #GPS #space #science #seeker #elements

Read More:

Future Space Travelers May Follow Cosmic Lighthouses
"An X-ray telescope on the exterior of the space station, the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer or NICER, collects and timestamps the arrival of X-ray light from neutron stars across the sky."

Fast-spinning pulsars can act as the universe's timekeepers
"Millisecond pulsars offer clues. The pulses allow scientists to precisely determine the pulsars' orbits and thus their masses - crucial data that theorists need to constrain and devise new hypotheses."

Pulsars at 50: Still going strong
"When astronomers initially stumbled upon these rapidly pulsing beacons in 1967, they thought they had found ET. The truth was almost as shocking."

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