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Curated by RSF Research Staff

Creating a Deep space GPS thanks to neutron stars

A navigation system is necessary to travel for long distances. In ancient time and up to the early 20th century sailors used the stars to calculate their position. Now the GPS system has this function. However, for space travel inside and outside our solar system, it will be necessary to have a totally new system to find the route. Hopefully it seems that scientist already have found a solution at this distant problem. Their idea is to use neutron stars as lighthouse lighting us from deep space.

These neutron stars are the result of the supernova explosion. And the pulsars are rotating neutron stars showing their X-ray pulse at each rotation acting like a tiny dot pulsing in the darkness of space. Pulsars (and neutron stars in general) are very different than normal stars. They are mostly made of neutrons, in what may be described as a single giant nucleus.

For the first time, NASA has a mission to study these pulsars to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos while paving the way for future space exploration. This new mission is called NICER-SEXTANT, taking the name of the ancient tools of the sea navigators.

In December 2004, a neutron star flared up so brightly, it temporarily blinded all the x-ray satellites in space, and lit up the Earth's upper atmosphere. This tremendous blast of energy was from a giant flare created by the neutron star's twisting magnetic field. Objects like this are called magnetars, and they produce magnetic fields trillions of time more powerful than those here on Earth. These fields are so strong they can actually buckle the surface of the neutron star causing these powerful star quakes. NASA.

The NASA's Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, is an X-ray telescope launched in early June 2017. This new tool was installed on the International Space Station and will be used to study the exotic astrophysical objects known as neutron stars. NICER will help to answer important questions like how dense pulsars are, and how the emission from the star escapes the system and arrives at the earth. This new instrument will allow scientists to observe pulsars, measure their emission, and to compare to the theoretical models to place constraints on how dense the pulsars are.


The NICER mission, using a part of the telescope called SEXTANT, will test whether the extraordinary regularity and stability of neutron star rotation could be used as a network of navigation beacons in deep space. For that, NICER will provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars. Part of this mission will be to test the technology that will use pulsars as natural satellites contributing to a Galactic (rather than Global) Positioning System and could be relied upon by future manned and unmanned spacecraft to navigate among the stars.

“There are many more challenges we will have to overcome before this will be an issue for exploration, particularly in our celestial area. Ultimately, a fully autonomous navigation system would be able to monitor and adjust performance to accommodate the motion of the spacecraft relative to the pulsars, and when pulsations were no longer visible from a specific target, the system would no longer schedule observations on that specific target until such time as pulsations could be detected again.”

Dr. Jason Mitchell – SEXTANT Project Manager, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NICER will operate for 18 months, but it is hoped that NASA will continue to support its operation afterwards, especially if it can deliver on its ambitious scientific goals.

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