NASA scientists say they have figured out a way to use X-rays to both communicate with long-distance spacecraft, as well as navigate as they sail past the outer limits of the solar system.
They say that using X-rays is faster than existing radio wave communications, can carry more information and won't be blocked when spacecraft enter a planet's thick atmosphere.
"While we are using X-ray navigation to guide us to Pluto, we might also use X-ray communication to talk back to Earth," said Keith Gendreau, principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The concept of X-ray navigation will be tested during a NASA mission called NICER/SEXTANT that is set to launch in August 2016. The spacecraft will study the insides of neutron stars, which produce X-rays, and test equipment that could be used for x-ray navigation.
Gendreau and other scientists have been thinking for several decades about using pulsars, which also emit beams of X-rays, as outer space lighthouses to help spacecraft tell where they are. Instead of just using a single radio source from Earth to tell their position and location, a future mission would tap into a hypothetical map of pulsars, each of which sends out its own identifiable frequency.