‘Satnav’ could pave man’s way beyond solar system

March 29th, 2012 - 6:59 pm ICT by IANS  

London, March 29 (IANS) Satellite navigation (satnav) doesn’t work in space, but scientists may have hit upon a new way to overcome this problem, using pulsars to guide spaceships through stars.

Satnav could be using neutron stars to steer a course through the universe, just as sailors of yore navigated the vast seas by the stars and the moon.

Werner Becker, professor of astrophysics at Max Planck Institute, Germany, who led the study, says: “Looking forward, it’s incredibly exciting to think that we have now the technology to chart our route to other stars.”

The new system would use X-ray light from pulsars to ‘triangulate’ a position in space - and works everywhere in the universe to within a few miles, the Daily Mail reports.

When stars much bigger than our Sun die, it is marked by a dramatic supernova explosion that destroys most of the star. But many leave behind compact, incredibly dense remnants known as neutron stars. Those detected have strong magnetic fields that focus emission into two highly directional beams.

The neutron star rotates rapidly and if the beam points in the direction of our planet we see a pulse of radiation at extremely regular intervals — hence the name pulsar.

A team from Max Planck is developing a navigation technology for spacecraft based on the regular emission of X-ray light from pulsars.

Their periodic signals have timing stabilities comparable to atomic clocks and provide characteristic time signatures that can be used as natural navigation beacons, similar to the use of GPS satellites for navigation on Earth.

By comparing the arrival times of the pulses measured on board the navigator spacecraft with those predicted at a reference location, the spacecraft position can be determined with an accuracy of few miles, everywhere in the solar system and far beyond.

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