NASA has just invented GPS for SPACE

We imagine a future in which space travel is as normal as driving to the nearest grocery store. But we forget that space is, well, mostly space, with very few landmarks to mark the way. Now that we are talking about sending people to Mars (and the moon again!), and beyond the solar system thereafter, there has to be an accurate way to navigate our way amongst the stars.

We actually might have a solution already, and it was discovered by none other than our favourite science and engineering organisation, NASA. NASA has just announced its new autonomous space navigation tech called SEXTANT, or Station Explorer for X-Ray Timing and Navigation Technology (so clever, so apt!). All the autonomous technologies showcased in the recent CES can just eat NASA’s dust.

SEXTANT uses pulsars (rotating neutron stars) to pinpoint locations of objects in space. The pulsars are so stable that the electromagnetic radiation beams can be accurately predicted to the microsecond, which is important when trying to locate an object in space travelling at thousands of miles per hour. Imagine these pulsars as lighthouses in space. It is not very different from how GPS navigation uses multiple satellites to determine position and provide navigation to Earthlings.

Pulsars emit strong beams of radiation while spinning rapidly. Image: Dana Berry / NASA.

NASA demonstrated the SEXTANT system by locating the NICER or Neutron-star Interior Composition Explore, a spacecraft launched to study neutron stars which is just the size of a washing machine. SEXTANT was able to autonomously determine NICER’s location within a 10-mile radius in just eight hours. The location was compared to NICER’s own GPS receiver, and the accuracy of the reading was confirmed.

If you think that eight hours is not impressive, remember that this technology is in its infancy, and it is trying to locate something relatively microscopic in an immense space, and NASA had actually allocated two weeks for the experiment.

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