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NASA Space Science

NASA's Got a Plan For a 'Galactic Positioning System' To Save Astronauts Lost in Space (space.com) 102

From a report: Outer space glows with a bright fog of X-ray light, coming from everywhere at once. But peer carefully into that fog, and faint, regular blips become visible. These are millisecond pulsars, city-sized neutron stars rotating incredibly quickly, and firing X-rays into the universe with more regularity than even the most precise atomic clocks. And NASA wants to use them to navigate probes and crewed ships through deep space. A telescope mounted on the International Space Station (ISS), the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), has been used to develop a brand new technology with near-term, practical applications: a galactic positioning system, NASA scientist Zaven Arzoumanian told physicists Sunday (April 15) at the April meeting of the American Physical Society.

With this technology, "You could thread a needle to get into orbit around the moon of a disant planet instead of doing a flyby," Arzoumian told Live Science. A galactic positioning system could also provide "a fallback, so that if a crewed mission loses contact with the Earth, they'd still have navigation systems on board that are autonomous." Right now, the kind of maneuvers that navigators would need to put a probe in orbit around distant moons are borderline impossible.

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NASA's Got a Plan For a 'Galactic Positioning System' To Save Astronauts Lost in Space

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  • by iggymanz ( 596061 ) on Tuesday April 17, 2018 @03:33PM (#56454127)

    the plaques on the Pioneer spacecraft launched in 1972 and 1973 showed the Earth's position from 14 pulsars

    • ... when watching Star Trek, if currently NASA had in a mind a method that could be used much like a GPS.

      This could very well be useful in our lifetimes if they were to build a ship powered by Ion, plasma, etc. drives that could point and go instead of relying on being thrown across space like a rock.

    • It's replicated on Voyager too. Unfortunately the accompanying audio can be read as 'no intelligent life.'

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      the plaques on the Pioneer spacecraft launched in 1972 and 1973 showed the Earth's position from 14 pulsars

      Just because it was an old idea, doesn't mean it was a good idea...

      Unfortunately, these vintage pulsar map would be nearly impossible to use [forbes.com] for its intended purpose of allowing someone in the far distant future to locate us...

      However, for a short term galactic map usable on human time scales, pulsars might prove much more useful.

      • Sorry but author was ignorant. The problems pointed out are for over many millions of years and immense distances. But the probes will go by other stars in a much shorter timescale, near first one in less than 100,000 years. The plaques would be useful for stars near earth and in tmespans of couple million of years.

    • by CRB9000 ( 647092 )
      We need 32 pulsar fixes. Nobody can do anything useful with just 14.
  • by ausekilis ( 1513635 ) on Tuesday April 17, 2018 @03:37PM (#56454151)

    GPS works by triangulating between 4-6 satellites that are all spread out. A 3d hexagon with a person in the middle somewhere.

    With extra-terrestrial navigation, the person is very far outside of that hexagon. It's really hard to find an exact position when you have multiple sources that - for all intents and purposes - are co-located. Get far enough from Earth and all GPS satellites are one dot in the distance. Looks like they've found a way to use various stars as the points of that hexagon. Cool.

  • ...than to get off at the wrong exit of Intergalactic Highway 39.
  • Sorry, couldn't resist and get off my lawn.
  • Are people insane? Have you forgotten about the speed of light and basic physics? You aren't going to be visiting "distant moons" with crewed missions. That includes Mars.
    • Have you forgotten about the speed of light and basic physics? You aren't going to be visiting "distant moons" with crewed missions. That includes Mars.

      I'm curious. What part of basic physics says that a spacecraft cannot be built which can travel for a couple-three years?

      Note that in terms of travel time, Mars is closer to Cape Canaveral than China was to Spain when Chris set out in the Santa Maria....

      • I'd point out that Chris Columbus miscalculated the size of the ocean *by half*, and nearly lost his ship to mutiny inspired by starvation, before sighting land.

  • Precision (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TFlan91 ( 2615727 ) on Tuesday April 17, 2018 @04:02PM (#56454331)

    GPS has what, ~3/4 meters precision? That's on Earth.

    This would eventually have 1 km precision in _all_ of space. Ya that's a big circle on my futuristic, hologram smartphone Goopple Maps (c), but in _all_ of space?! Damn...

    • by WallyL ( 4154209 )

      GPS has what, ~3/4 meters precision? That's on Earth.

      This would eventually have 1 km precision in _all_ of space. Ya that's a big circle on my futuristic, hologram smartphone Goopple Maps (c), but in _all_ of space?! Damn...

      What, a 708m [youtube.com] diameter too large for you?

  • Just a side comment. Neutron stars do change pulse times. Not often but often enough that a GPS system will need error handling code for one "missing" signal.

    See Neutron pulse rate [scientificamerican.com]

    • Ha! There was just a story a few days about about the discovery of a pulsar "hiccup".

      Now there is a story claiming their reliability, classic Slashdot move, classic move.

  • So after our own solar system is utterly destroyed, the few survivors will still have some idea where they are! Unfortunately, faster than light travel still isn't even a remote possibility.
    • The fastest man made object has only acheived 0.00024% the speed of light. And that was an unmanned probe. Faster than light travel is impossible (we can prove this). Even getting a significant fraction of the speed of light with a manned or unmanned probe isn't even a remote possibility.
      • Re: Awesome! (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        What about all those particles produced at cern. Are they not man made objects?

  • So... they made a different version of GPS and named it... GPS? Global... Galactic... they might want a name that starts with a different letter.
  • Great! Atomic Clocks are already Stratum 0 in NTP. Does this make these new things Stratum -1?

  • Right now, the kind of maneuvers that navigators would need to put a probe in orbit around distant moons are borderline impossible.

    Human space history is full of deemed impossible things that were accomplished.

    The real challenge nowadays is to accomplish anything within modern space industry Quality Assurance standards.

  • by ShoulderOfOrion ( 646118 ) on Tuesday April 17, 2018 @11:59PM (#56456277)

    The GPS said this wormhole was a shortcut!

  • Didn't the Ancients already figure this out using a set of six astrological symbols representing any point in space, with the seventh symbol representing the point of origin? Plus, Captain Samantha Carter figured out how to account for stellar drift.
  • "You could thread a needle to get into orbit around the moon of a disant planet instead of doing a flyby,"

    If a probe is heading for a distant planet, it's moving pretty fast, because we don't want to wait several lifetimes to get the information back. If it's moving pretty fast, its nowhere near orbital speed for a moon (Triton?), and its trajectory is going to be limited so it won't be able to play fancy games with gravity slingshots. That's the big problem with getting into orbit. Not precision of tr

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