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Dead Stars, the New GPS for Spaceships

S u m m a r y :
Dead stars might soon become the new GPS for spaceships, suggest new findings presented at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society held on January 11.

Light of the Dead in Space

Finding your way through space can be quite challenging for astronomers, a feat that might be eased by making spaceships use blinking dead stars to navigate through this hostile world. These heavenly ‘dead bodies’, known as pulsars, would function as GPS satellites, pointing at the location of the space vehicles.

A device with 52 X-ray telescopes on the International Space Station used as a stellar GPS under NASA’s SEXTANT experiment. Photo Credits: NASA’S GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER.

A Stellar GPS

The pulsars emit radiation beams that pass over the Earth at regular intervals. These beams can be likened to those of a lighthouse, and they can light the way of spaceships in space. The key to this would be measuring the timing of radiation bursts emitted from the pulsating dead stars. This was confirmed during an experiment conducted by the International Space Station, for the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology experiment, SEXTANT. The team of researchers demonstrated their technique by pinpointing its own location; they describe it as the stellar version of GPS. Your regular GPS itself uses the timing of satellite signals to find the position of cell phones, for instance.

These findings show that spaceships might no longer depend on radio telescope communications to figure out their location, a system that is known to decrease in accuracy the further a spacecraft moves from the planet.


SEXTANT measured signals from 5 pulsars using a set of 52 X-ray telescopes. That was how the team was able to pinpoint SEXTANS’s location to within 10 kilometres during its orbiting the Earth on the space station.

10 kilometres might not seem good enough, but it will work if you’re out there on Pluto, for example, where no GPS navigation system exists, explain the researchers.


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