The second ingredient is the SEXTANT software on NICER, which can measure changes in the arrival time of these pulsar emissions as the ISS orbits. The goal is to see if SEXTANT’s measurements of the space station’s orbit mirror the actual orbit of the space station. If they match, the navigational concept could work in deep space.
“With the NICER-SEXTANT mission, we have an excellent opportunity to use the International Space Station to demonstrate technology that will lead us into the outer solar system and beyond, and tell us about some of the most exciting objects in the sky,” said Keith Gendreau, the principal investigator for NICER at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, in a NASA statement this week.
NASA is hoping to send astronauts to the Mars in the 2030s, and recently announced a small space station at the moon as a stepping stone for that ambition. This “deep space gateway,” as NASA calls it, would include “a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and... logistics modules to enable research,” the agency announced earlier this year.
This space station would be the first phase of the gateway, while the second phase would involve a reusable deep-space transport spacecraft that could carry crews out to Mars. While we don’t know what kind of navigation this future Martian spacecraft would use, it’s possible that pulsars could help chart the way — depending on how well these NICER-SEXTANT tests go.