Are pulsars the new satellites? NASA tests could make ‘golden record’ a reality

A new NASA experiment shows how pulsars like LGM-1 could be used to navigate future missions to deep space with the right sensors and navigational algorithms. Their tests sparked the possibility that a spacecraft could autonomously determine its position in space by timing the reception of signals from multiple pulsars without human instruction.

The pulsar-navigation experiment is known as the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT). Last November, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) spent a day and a half looking at a handful of pulsars.

By measuring tiny changes in the arrival time of the pulses, NICER could pinpoint its location to within 5 kilometres This was the first demonstration in space of the long-sought technology known as pulsar navigation
One day, the method could help spacecraft steer themselves without regular instructions from Earth.

Pulsars are ultra-dense leftovers of exploded stars that give off beams of powerful radiation as they rapidly spin. Some emit radiation blasts as often as every few thousandth of a second. In 1999-2000, the US Naval Research Laboratory flew a satellite experiment that showed that, in theory, spacecrafts could orient themselves using pulsars.

The European Space Agency has explored the concept in recent years, with researchers calculating the margin at which a spacecraft could use pulsars to locate itself. In November 2016, China launched an experimental pulsar-navigation satellite, called XPNAV-1.

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