NASA’s GPS-Like Deep Space Navigation Experiment Set to Launch on SpaceX Rocket

The space agency is preparing to test the use of pulsars as navigational beacons, which it hopes will enable a sustained human presence throughout the solar system.

W W hen the first pulsar was discovered in 1961, scientists were astonished at the precise, regular signals emanating from the celestial object, which from Earth can look like a flickering star. It was lightheartedly given the designation LGM-1, which stood for “Little Green Men.” Perhaps extraterrestrial life had put the pulsar out there as some sort of beacon or lighthouse, some speculated.
“We did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization,” said co-discoverer Jocelyn Bell Burnell in a speech years after the discovery, according to Popular Science, “but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission.”
Today, we know that pulsars are naturally occurring, incredibly dense neutron stars that result after a living star exhausts its energy and collapses. They rotate quickly while emitting beams of electromagnetic radiation, creating the illusion of a steady pulse.
Now, in an odd twist, we humans are looking at using pulsars as navigational beacons after all. A new NASA instrument is scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s Dragon CRS-11 mission on Saturday (June 3) that will, in part, test to see if pulsars are a good way of enabling deep-space navigation.
Nasa’s Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology project (SEXTANT), the agency says, “will demonstrate a GPS-like absolute position determination capability by observing millisecond pulsars, which will enable autonomous navigation throughout the solar system and beyond.”
A view of the optics system that will be used on the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, which will provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars. NICER will also test — for the first time in space — technology that uses pulsars as navigation beacons. NASA