About 2,000 known pulsars are distributed across the sky, with about 200 known millisecond pulsars. While pulsars emit electromagnetic radiation in multiple wavelengths, the light beaming from pulsars is most visible in the X-ray spectrum.
Gendreau said the system is “very cool science” and will help humanity navigate and explore the galaxy. NASA says this technology will potentially “enable sustained human presence throughout the solar system, as well as enhance and enable science in the outer solar system and beyond.”
Since the early days of space exploration, spacecraft have used NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) to communicate with Earth and navigate through space. The European Space Agency has also developed a similar system called the European Space Tracking (ESTRACK) network.
These are both international arrays of giant radio antennas located approximately 120 degrees apart on Earth to ensure that any satellite in space is able to communicate with at least one station at all times. Navigators for each of the missions process the radiometric-tracking data received from the networks to determine the spacecraft’s position and velocity. They also use optical data, where the spacecraft takes a picture of the star background to help refine the spacecraft’s trajectory.
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For years, scientists and engineers around the world have been exploring the feasibility of using X-ray pulsars for spacecraft navigation. Where the DSN and ESTRACK networks require a spacecraft to communicate with ground-based systems, the use of pulsars would enable autonomous navigation — at least to some extent — on-board the spacecraft and minimize communications with Earth. Proponents say this would also offer the potential of lower mission operating costs due to the reduced need for ground infrastructure.
Gendreau said he thinks the new technology provides a new option for deep space navigation that could work in concert with existing spacecraft-based radio and optical systems.
“The cost savings come in that you don’t have to use resources from the DSN as much,” he said. “And, in a sense, it is priceless because it will enable missions to extreme deep space, and greater accuracy for all missions.”