X-Ray Pulsar 'Beacons' To Guide Spacecraft

X-Ray pulsars can be used to triangulate the position of space craft to within a few kilometers, according to scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.


(Artist’s impression of Rosetta, if it navigated in deep space using pulsar signals)

Werner 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 Earth.

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 kilometers, everywhere in the Solar System and far beyond.

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

Science fiction writers of the 1950's were fascinated by this idea. In his 1952 story Troubled Star, George O. Smith described space beacons:

"And what is a beacon?"

"It is a phenomenon caused by the Doppler effect when traveling at galactic speeds. In this case, when coming through this rift at fifteen hundred light years per hour, a three-day variable star will appear to the observer as a rapidly blinking light..."

"We use the three-day variable to denote the galactic travel lanes. Very effective.
(Read more about Smith's space beacon)

In his 1956 story The Repairman, Murray Leinster described a hyperspace beacon:

Every beacon has a code signal as part of its radiation and represents a measurable point in hyperspace. Triangulation and quadrature works for navigation - only it follows its own rules.

For a hyperspace jump, you need at least four beacons for an accurate fix.
(Read more about Harrison's hyperspace beacon)

In 1980, Star Trek Maps was published; it consisted of a set of four maps and an Introduction to Navigation booklet. In the accompanying pamphlet, they described the standard navigation system using "sub-space beacons", and then described the emergency system that used pulsars as a GPS system. It included the real equations as well.


(Star Trek Maps: galactic coordinates and basic vector calculus)

Via AstroBio; thanks to Winchell Chung (aka @nyrath) of Project Rho.

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