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Space Science

Pulsar Signals Could Provide Galactic GPS 146

KentuckyFC writes "We're all familiar with GPS. It consists of a network of satellites that each broadcast a time signal. A receiver on Earth can then work out its position in three-dimensional space by comparing the arrival times of the signals from at least three satellites. That's handy, but it only works on Earth. Now astronomers say that the millisecond signals from a network of pulsars could allow GPS-style navigation on a galactic scale. They propose using four pulsars that form a rough tetrahedron with the Solar System at its center, and a co-ordinate system with its origin at 00:00 on 1 January 2001 at the focal point of the Interplanetary Scintillation Array, the radio telescope near Cambridge in the UK that first observed pulsars. The additional complexity of working with signals over these distances is that relativity has to be taken into account (which is why the origin is defined as a point in space-time rather than just space). The pulsar GPS system should allow users to determine their position in space-time anywhere in the galaxy to within a few nanoseconds, which corresponds to an accuracy of about a meter." Pulsars slow down over time, and the arXiv paper doesn't seem to mention this. The paper is mainly about establishing a coordinate system and a reference selection of pulsars. Any proposed Galactic Positioning System would have to take the slowing into account, and since it is poorly understood and not completely predictable, this would limit accuracy.
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Pulsar Signals Could Provide Galactic GPS

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  • by The_mad_linguist (1019680) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:22AM (#28110109)

    At this point, I'd normally be ranting about how the G in GPS stands for "Global", and that the summary is making an awful analogy, but then I realized that "Galactic" also begins with a G.

    And then I realized that that still doesn't make "Galactic Global Positioning System" any better.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by wjousts (1529427)
      That's because it's Galactic Galactic Positioning System, Obviously.
    • I seriously doubt that this could be made to work, since General Relativity denies the very notion of simultinaity required to coordinate signals. And this results from two monkey wrenches - the various velocities and accelerations of the pulsars, and the varying and unknown distribution of gravitational fields between the objects. Space across galactic distances is not Euclidean, and the degree of curvature is not constant from one place to another on large scales.

      Naturally, I didn't RTFA, but I'd be surpr

    • Actually, this has already been done. The Pioneer Plaques gave the location of the Earth, as relative to pulsars:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_plaque [wikipedia.org]

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:24AM (#28110145) Homepage

    > The additional complexity of working with signals over these distances is that
    > relativity has to be taken into account...

    Also true for high-precision GPS.

    • by HonkyLips (654494) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:57AM (#28110661)
      Yes you're absolutely correct. The current GPS system has to incorporate aspects of both special and general relativity in order to be accurate to the meter. Special Relativity predicts that time slows down proportional to speed and therefore the speed of the satellites becomes a critical aspect of calculating their own "time". Additionally, General Relativity predicts that time slows down as a body is influenced by gravity, and because the GPS satellites do not have circular orbits the influence of the Earth's gravity changes with their position (they move closer and further away from the Earth as they orbit) and this also needs to be taken into account. The overall effect of "relativistic time slowing" is tiny and is in the nano-second ballpark, however when calculating positions using GPS a few nano-seconds can mean a few meters...
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Yes you're absolutely correct. The current GPS system has to incorporate aspects of both special and general relativity in order to be accurate to the meter. ...

        General relativity generalizes relativity to arbitrary smooth manifolds...

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by whoisisis (1225718)

        > The overall effect of "relativistic time slowing" is tiny and is in the nano-second ballpark, however when calculating positions using GPS a few nano-seconds can mean a few meters...

        No, it's in the micro-second ballpark (around 38 microseconds a day) which leads to
        11 /kilometers/ of inaccuracy a day, if you do not count in relativity.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Sandbags (964742)

        It would be interesting if it came to light that due to the complexity of relativity in the short distances around the planet, combined with atmospheric and other signal interference validating position from ground based sources, if the positioning of the GPS sattelites themselves would in fact be more accurate using the pulsar based Galactic Positioning Systems...

        ie, our Global Positioning Sattelites could one day map their relative position using the Galatic positioning system... making GPS more accurate

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...that uses metric pulsars.

  • by kimvette (919543) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:27AM (#28110203) Homepage Journal

    I see a problem with this immediately:

    Unlike the global positioning system, the pulsars are always going to be moving relative to each other and to your position AND the reference point, which adds a tremendous amount of error. That combined with the unpredictable changes in chances in pulsars' emissions, makes the "GPS" somewhat unreliable for interstellar travel.

    However, given that we're probably centuries if not eons off from traveling outside our solar system, it's a moot point. On the scale we can use it NOW (interplanetary probes, etc.) it should be highly accurate.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      So you think the current GPS satellite constellation is fixed relative to some reference point on Earth (and therefore eachother as well)? Of course everything is moving relative to everything else in the system. Now that also means we need to know the position of the pulsars with a high degree of accuracy, just like we have to know the position of the GPS satellites now.

      • by evanbd (210358)
        You don't need to know the pulsar locations that precisely -- it is sufficient to know the *difference* between the distances from the epoch to the pulsar and your spacecraft to the pulsar. To do that, you simply need to start at a known location and count pulses as you move.
      • Calculating a coordinate with GPS is about measuring the differences between pulses. If we calculated coordinates after the fact by comparing the signal measured by a remote probe with a signal measured on earth I think you'd get a very accurate relative position.
    • by evanbd (210358) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @11:29AM (#28111149)
      It makes the problem more complicated, but it does not add error. You don't think the GPS satellites are stationary, do you? The source of error here is uncertainty in the measurements of those positions. And it actually isn't that bad -- start your spacecraft near Sol, with position well enough defined that you know which pulse you're receiving. (When observing, you can only see the relative phasing of the pulsars, unlike GPS satellites which transmit a time base.) Then you need to count pulses as you move. You then know that, relative to your starting point (or, equivalently, the epoch), you've seen X0 pulses from pulsar 0, X1 from pulsar 1, etc. Knowing how many pulses closer to each of the pulsars you are tells you how far you are from your starting point (in spacetime, not just space, obviously). The error bars get larger as you move enough to get parallax effects -- since from Earth we can only measure the distance to a pulsar with modest precision, and its velocity perpendicular to us with even less. If, however, you have a radio telescope that can resolve the position of the pulsar with good precision, you get to add a long baseline parallax measurement to correct for that. Add a timebase transmitter at Earth as well, and the errors basically disappear -- errors of a few nanoseconds should be readily available. And once you're far enough away from Sol to make that transmitter difficult (more than a few lightyears), you'll know the pulsar trajectories well enough it won't matter as much.
      • by Rich0 (548339)

        I'd think a bigger source of error in practice is missed pulses. The system depends on counting pulses, and at any point if you get out of sync you are going to lose track of your position.

        In GPS the satellites transmit the time that each packet is transmitted. So, the receiver doesn't need to be on continuously to not lose track of its location. Obviously the pulsars aren't going to encode anything in their signals so you're dependent on keeping track.

        Wouldn't a simpler solution be to just put some tran

        • by evanbd (210358) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @01:17PM (#28112837)
          Missing pulses isn't a big deal if you have an accurate clock. Phase locked loops can be tuned to handle lots of missing pulses very, very well. If you're not moving, or know exactly how you're moving, you know when the pulses arrive even if you don't actually look at them. If you're moving, and don't know precisely how, then and only then do you need to be actively counting pulses -- and unless you're accelerating by nontrivial fractions of c in between pulse arrival times, you can still miss lots of pulses before your error in predicted pulse arrival time grows terribly large. Somehow I doubt that will be a problem.
      • by woolio (927141)

        And it actually isn't that bad -- start your spacecraft near Sol

        Well, sure, but not TOO NEAR!!!!

        (Sol is a bit warm!)

        What about gravitational effects bending the light waves?

        • by evanbd (210358)
          That would be why they say you have to take relativistic effects into account -- all of them, general relativity included, not just special relativity and its time dilation effects.
    • A far bigger problem is the directionality of the emissions. They send out highly directional beams. These will sweep out a hollow cone of some width. However if you move outside that cone you will not get a signal. This will mean that far more pulsars than just the four mentioned in the article will need to be mapped if you want to cover the galaxy.
      • by Hadlock (143607)

        I'm sure the current 4 will work fine for the next 150 years or so, barring cheap FTL travel.

        • So what you are saying is that it will work until we actually have a practical need for a galactic positioning system?
          • by Hadlock (143607)

            Yes. I can imagine a deep space probe being sent to alpha centauri using this to calculate current speed and position (~5 light years away). In another 50 years we're going to get bored of what's immediately within human grasp and at some point in our lifetime the Voyager units will either burn out or the signal will be too weak to continue. Maybe 10 or 100 lightyears away you would need more than those four reference points, but the likelyhood of that happening in our lifetime is slim to none.

    • by Sandbags (964742)

      Their movement may be a fact, but when you calculate position based on space-time instead of simply space, the movement IN space is HIGHLY predictible, and therefore highly accurate. The system of calculations might need periodic adjustment (say every few decades) gue to unforseen gravametric effects, but generally, it's a pretty significant (and thus in itself predictable) event to actually cause a pulsar to have to adjust is'd galactic course... We don't really care about the emissions of the pulsar, on

    • By the time we're technologically advanced enough to engineer a "pulsar GPS" to navigate interstellar spaces, we'll probably go one better and use a stellar spectral emissions database, taking relative movement and speed into account of course, as I'm under the impression that all stars have a unique spectral fingerprint. There will be plenty of constant reference points (visible from all points), such as the Galactic Center, the Magellanic Clouds and globular clusters.

      Say it's the year 4000 AT (After Tran

  • by ATestR (1060586) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:28AM (#28110207) Homepage

    Cool concept, but it seems like it would be of limited use until someone develops FTL.

    • by squoozer (730327) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:49AM (#28110523)

      I wonder if this would actually be useful before we develop FTL travel. Presumably it's a comparatively simple receiver and some very clever software in which case deep space probes could use it to check their position. I would suggest that they use more than four pulsars though to improve accuracy.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MBGMorden (803437)

        I would suggest that they use more than four pulsars though to improve accuracy.

        There's a whole lot of research and development (and a cost/benefit ratio study) that needs to be done before just throwing out claims like that. If 4 pulsars get you down to 1 meter accuracy, yet 5 only increases it by 10% (and the 6th increases accuracy even less), yet costs millions more dollars to upgrade the probe to handle, then it's of no real benefit to use more than 4.

        • Hey, when I am lost in space, that 1 meter difference is a big deal. I'll end up in the water instead of the beach when I travel 18,000,000,000,000 for my long weekend trip.

        • Precisely. Terrestrial/bog standard GPS uses multiple birds because the costs of doing so are very low. This strategy also provides considerable advantage - while contributing very little to accuracy (outside of surveyor grade units) it means that if you lose track on a bird because it drops below the horizon or the signal is degraded because tree cover or buildings interfere you can maintain an active position solution.

      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attitude_dynamics_and_control#Star_tracker [wikipedia.org]

        Deep Space 1 and Deep Impact both were equipped with optical navigation software. I think that the big advantage of Pulsar-based navigation would be for missions substantially outside the solar system, where the star atlas would be less reliable. Without really high-speed propulsion at a substantial fraction of light speed, I think you'd be hard-pressed to design a spacecraft that would survive long enough to need to use Pulsars for loca

    • by eth1 (94901)

      "Warp...five point nine...parsecs then exit hyperspace left"

    • by psydeshow (154300)

      You're not going to be able to prove that you developed FTL travel until you can prove that you got to somewhere (and back, presumably) at faster than the speed of light. A galactic positioning system would be quite handy for figuring out exactly where that somewhere was, and how to get back home.

      Anyway, it would be quite nice to know exactly where you were even if you stayed within our solar system. Plenty of room to get lost out there...

  • Hasn't that already been done. I thought the starburst pattern on the plaques affixed to the V'ger probes indicated the position of Earth relative to a set of pulsars.
  • by yogibaer (757010) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:33AM (#28110283)
    ..as far as my "Wing Commander" Knowledge is still intact. :-)
  • Sorry, but until it's supported by my iPhone...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The only galactic GPS system I use is the beacon sent by the Emperor of Mankind. Granted the cost of a thousand psychers a day is high, but it's worth it.

  • Old news.... (Score:5, Informative)

    by p_trekkie (597206) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:46AM (#28110463) Homepage
    This is not a new idea. Actually, this idea has been thought about before and dismissed. The researchers referenced propose using millisecond radio pulsars for navigation. This is a poor idea from an engineering standpoint because it requires having a large collecting area of radio dishes in order to get an apporpriate signal level.

    A better idea, which is currently being researched, and was suggested four years ago (at least the earliest I recall it being mentioned) was using x-ray pulsars, which require much smaller collecting area. See for example this thesis [umd.edu] on the subject.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is a poor idea from an engineering standpoint because it requires having a large collecting area of radio dishes in order to get an apporpriate signal level.

      Well at least it means we'll be able to move the Earth throughout the universe with a high degree of accuracy using huge radio dishes! Now to work on building a propulsion system capable of moving the entire fucking planet. :-D

  • by wjousts (1529427) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @10:47AM (#28110487)

    Any proposed Galactic Positioning System would have to take the slowing into account, and since it is poorly understood and not completely predictable, this would limit accuracy.

    Since we're dealing with interstellar distances, just how accurate do you need to be? Being off by a few million miles might be pretty good if you're talking about light-years of travel.

    • Hide something in interstellar space, note its current GalacticPS coordinates and velocity, and come back years later to find it. Probably needs to be fairly accurate.

      • by dorix (414150)

        And thus is born the sport "Galactocaching".

      • by wjousts (1529427)
        Ok, so maybe it won't work for interstellar pirates hiding their space booty, but if all you're trying to do is get from Earth to Alpha Ceti IV, you'll probably be close enough to see where you need to go.
    • You ever have to walk a few million miles to the nearest gas station because your girlfriend forgot to fill the tank? No thanks, man.
  • How large would the antennas need to be?
  • ...to non-existing problems hilarious!

  • Fixing the coordinate system to a point near Cambridge will obviously cause the "galactic coordinate system" to oscillate around the sun. And they would try to fix the coordinate system's rotation relative to what? Absolute, or the earth, or the quasars, which are moving relative to each other?

    • Or rather, they are fixing it to an inertial reference frame that was centered near Cambridge at the appointed time in 2001? That still seems hard to nail down precisely over a long period of time.

      • Re:geocentrism (Score:4, Informative)

        by Morphine007 (207082) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @11:41AM (#28111349)

        Not really ... it's just a point in space. They can figure out where everything else in the observable universe was, relative to that point. I mean, the reality is, that nothing in space is really all that fixed (since galaxies are spreading apart), but as far as intra-galaxy positioning goes, one point is just as good as another for a standard point of reference. We know where that point was, relative to most other points, at a specific time. That point doesn't complete an orbit of the sun every 12 months, even though the object it was based on does. Small distinction, but it's all that matters. They're going to be measuring position relative to the pulsars, and not measuring it relative to the focal point of a telescope in Cambridge.

        Also, there's a bit of silliness in the summary - the braking index of pulsars is fairly well established. It's the causes that aren't really understood, since most pulsars apparently differ from the theoretical index (IANAP). The slowdown also seems to be constant, and gives pulsars a lifespan of 10^6 years. In a modern GPS system, one needs to know two things from each of the satellites Where the signal came from and when (the reality is that you really just need to know when it was sent, and you program the "where" into the receiver-unit in a manner that lets you know where the object would have been at that time). In a modern GPS system, they put really expensive and accurate clocks into the satellites, and the signal they send out encodes the time that the signal was sent. You figure out where you are, by calculating how long it took that signal to get to you, based off of the time received from other satellites

        How the hell would a pulsar encode the time it sent its signal? Simple, the period of the signal from each pulsar changes over time... that's your clock. You know what the period was at 0000hrs 1 Jan 2001, and by how much it increases. So, when you receive the signal, you calculate how long, from 0000hrs 1 Jan 2001, it would take for the signal to have a period matching the one you received. You now know when the signal was sent from, and, the information on where it was sent from is programmed into the receiver-unit. Measure the same from the other pulsars and *bam*, there's your location.

        • Which is to say, that receiving signals from pulsars whose signal period NEVER deviated, would tell you absolutely nothing about where you are, unless you're using a really narrow directional antenna to figure out exactly where (directionally, but not positionally) the pulsars are. Which is akin to visual triangulation... something that'd likely be a nightmare to engineer around. What you need is a clock in each of the sats, and the slowing *is* that clock.
          • by mlyle (148697)

            Nope. Phase difference between the pulses can tell you about changes in distances and thus your position; no slowing needed, just a knowledge of period and initial phase at a known reference time.

            Then, a very approximate clock running from that reference time would tell you the expected phase differences between the next pulses at earth for the next pulse; differences from this lets you solve for x, y, z, and t at your location. If you are going to travel further than the pulsars' periods light distance f

            • Yeah, that would be an easier way to calculate distance from the pulsar (like I said, IANAP). However, the onboard clock from which you calculate the expected phase would need to take the change in period with respect to time (ie. the slowing of the pulsar) into consideration. You obviously have a better grasp on how to determine the distance than I do; I was mostly pointing out that, no matter what you do, the braking of the pulsar is understood and either forms the basis for your distance calculations or
            • by thogard (43403)

              You do it just like GPS receivers get their pseudo range. You start by guessing what time it is and you use that to guess your position then you refine your idea of the current time which gives a better position. Once you have a rough idea of where you are in time and space, you can figure out how many ticks the pulsar has produced since your epoch and feed that back into the Kalman Filter to refine your fix. If you wanted this to work for all time, your Kalman filter would need a parameter for drift o

    • It doesn't rotate around the sun. It is fixed in both time and space.

      • That statement doesn't seem to define the velocity, there being no absolute fixed space.

        • correct, space is not fixed... unless you're talking about a fixed position in time. The point referring to the focus of the radio telescope in Cambridge UK *does* move. But the point referring to the focus of the radio telescope in Cambridge UK at 0000hrs 1 Jan 2001 does NOT.
    • Re:geocentrism (Score:5, Informative)

      by PTBarnum (233319) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @11:18AM (#28110977)

      The native coordinate system is not a euclidean grid. Think of the pulsars as being clocks that are continuously broadcasting their local time. The 4 spacetime coordinates they define are just the values of those 4 clocks. In order to normalize this, I need to choose a 0 point for each clock, and the authors chose the values of the clocks as observed in Cambridge at the beginning of the millenium. Apparerently, by observing the signals, I can decide how much time (to the nearest 4 ns) had elapsed at each pulsar, at the time it broadcast the signal I'm now receiving. I can then define a transform that maps those 4 numbers into whatever local coordinate system I want. I could convert it to longitude/lattitude/UTC for terrestrial navigation, or some sort of heliocentric system for planetary navigation, or a galactic system for interstellar navigation.

  • 0, 0, 1 Sweet 0, 0, 1
  • The additional complexity of working with signals over these distances is that relativity has to be taken into account

    Friggin' In-Laws ruin Everything!

  • I think origin (0,0,0) [(0,0,0,0,0)?] should be at the Sun upon the start date - since the earth orbits the Sun _and_ rotates, this could remove a couple curliques from the system - of course I know the sun orbits the galactic center and other things, I'm just saying it would simplify the system some when it comes to resolving positional issues to some fine resolution in the future.

    I agree X-ray sources are better than MHz sources.

    • by PhireN (916388)
      No matter where you define the origin, your going to have the same problems.
      Everything is going to move, at different velocities in different directions, even the origin.
      To find a planet you will need know:
      1. Where it was at the time of origin
      2. Relative to the point of origin at the time of origin,
      3. How much time has passed since the time of origin,
      4. The velocity/acceleration of the point of origin
      5. The velocity/acceleration of planet.

      This isn't hard for a computer to calculate. But you will never

  • Pulsars have been used for geodesic measurements for about 30 years. The nice short regular pulses make it possible to track the movement of continental plates down to the miliionth of a LOC length.

  • IIRC, one of the methods we use to measure the distance to a pulsar is to look at the effects the interstellar medium has on the latency of the pulse. Assuming the ISM is uniform, I suppose this wouldn't be an issue, but wouldn't this cause accuracy problems if there was an area where the ISM was denser?

  • Aren't pulsars directional? How would you see the pulsar if it isn't currently flashing in your direction... They have set orbits and would have a plane where they will be invisible. Not that we'll ever get that far as humans, but it does seem like a major show-stopper.
    • by Tokerat (150341)

      Not that we'll ever get that far as humans

      Geek card REVOKED!

    • Aren't pulsars directional?

      You fail at using TLAs to enhance your whatever. GRBs, or Gamma Ray Bursts,
      are non-recurring events and don't have much to do with pulsars.

      The astronomical acronym you might be trying to refer to is LGM, as in LGM-1 [wikipedia.org].

  • "They propose using four pulsars that form a rough tetrahedron with the Solar System at its center, and a co-ordinate system with its origin at 00:00 on 1 January 2001 at the focal point of the Interplanetary Scintillation Array, the radio telescope near Cambridge in the UK that first observed pulsars."

    I really really hope they remember the millennium bug. We don't want to creat another one of those, do we?

  • by clintp (5169) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 @11:30AM (#28111169)

    Quoting from Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]:

    Relative position of the Sun to the center of the Galaxy and 14 pulsars

    The radial pattern on the left of the plaque shows 15 lines emanating from the same origin. Fourteen of the lines have corresponding long binary numbers, which stand for the periods of pulsars, using the hydrogen spin-flip transition frequency as the unit. Since these periods will change over time, the epoch of the launch can be calculated from these values.

    The lengths of the lines show the relative distances of the pulsars to the Sun. A tick mark at the end of each line gives the Z coordinate perpendicular to the galactic plane.

    If the plaque is found, only some of the pulsars may be visible from the location of its discovery. Showing the location with as many as 14 pulsars provides redundancy so that the location of the origin can be triangulated even if only some of the pulsars are recognized.

    The data for one of the pulsars is misleading. When the plaque was designed, the frequency of pulsar "1240" (now known as J1243-6423) was known to only three significant decimal digits: 0.388 seconds. The map lists the period of this pulsar in binary to much greater precision: 100000110110010110001001111000. Rounding this off at about 10 significant bits (100000110100000000000000000000) would have provided a hint of this uncertainty. This pulsar is represented by the long line pointing down and to the right.

    The fifteenth line on the plaque extends to the far right, behind the human figures. This line indicates the sun's relative distance to the center of the galaxy.

  • It was conceived about the time pulsars were discovered.
  • ...you can use triangulation with known quasars, which is easy but imprecise.
  • The GPS ephemerides data stream includes parameters to model clock drift. A similar set of corrections could be included to provide a correction for the change in pulsar frequency.

    Something tells me though, that this is a small problem compared to being able to detect the pulsar signals in the first place. Unless adding an Arecibo-sized dish to your cellphone or pocket-sized locator gizmo is an option.

    • Something tells me though, that this is a small problem compared to being able to detect the pulsar signals in the first place. Unless adding an Arecibo-sized dish to your cellphone or pocket-sized locator gizmo is an option.

      There's a much easier way to solve that problem, by centralization.

      All you need is one array to detect the quasar pulses and parse them for location. Then, you can use a system to determine your location relative to that array -- combine the two sets of information and you'll have you

  • There has to be some base time, so what do we use ? Might as well base it on what we use already - GMT. A couple of things to sort out:
    • Gweenwich Mean Time is subject to Leap seconds - what about Galactic Mean Time ?
      This is not just fanciful - do we want the two time references to slowly fall out of sync ?
    • According to relativity things that occur at the same time to one observer, may not for another observer, see: Relativity of simultaneity [wikipedia.org], so how meaningful is a Galactic Mean Time ?
  • Not only do Pulsars slow down over time but they also unpredictably and abruptly speed up. This is thought to be because of a collapse of the outer layers of the Pulsar as it gradually loses energy over time and due to the conversation of angular momentum this collapse will cause an increase in rotational velocity.
  • Thinking about this, I wonder what sort of coordinate system you would use in your spacecraft? Would you use a polar coordinate system, with certain celestial bodies providing the center of the coordinate system? For example if you are in close proximity of a planet you use that, then outside of those bounds the star and then the galactic center, and so on? Or do you a grid (cube?) system with certain reference points to keep the grid in the right position?

    Because reference points in space have this horribl

  • All of this is fine and dandy, but they still don't tell us what the coordinates of Earth are. What good will this do us if we are abducted and need to get home?

    As a commenter on Technology Review said, isn't this the same concept as NASA put on Pioneer F?

  • If we're going to do this, could we please make the origin at 00:00 Jan 1. 1970? I'd hate to have to write yet another date conversion function.
  • Now I'm just waiting for a several thousand dollar luxury wristwatch that can scan for pulsars.

  • Now people will have an excuse for driving their starships straight into a supernova. "But the GPS said to turn 'up' here!"

  • Hey look out for that Asteroid *swerve* whew! . . . "Recalculating" "Recalculating"

  • Kinda off-topic, but one of my sci-fi horror scenarios would be being lost in near space, out of sight of earth (far enough that it looks like another star), with limited propulsion (based on an issue of the comic Star Brand decades ago where the hero gets into a fight in space and becomes disoriented). Would this device work as well as a handheld blackbox GPS that you could use to orient yourself home?
  • ... the aliens turn on SA [wikipedia.org] and encrypt the pulsar's timing signals.
  • On that plate he had welded to Voyager?

  • Road side maps will no longer have the big sticker "You are here" to mark your location but would have a big sticker "You are here, right now" to mark your position in space time. Wow.

  • I've been looking into this since 2001. The biggest real problem is detecting the pulsars. The free space signal loss is on the order of -400db. The math is much harder than dealing with GPS and you have to find the easy way to figure out tick counts. Other than that, its workable. Modern GPS receivers do have methods to remove pulsar noise from the signals they are watching. Defining a coordinate system will be a mess as well but that could lead to a reasonable way to define things for all planets as

Use the Force, Luke.