We discuss the possibility of an autonomous navigation system for spacecraft that is based on pulsar timing data. Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars that are observable as variable celestial sources of electromagnetic radiation. Their periodic signals have timing stabilities comparable to atomic clocks and provide characteristic temporal signatures that can be used as natural navigation beacons, quite similar to the use of GPS satellites for navigation on Earth.
By comparing pulse arrival times measured on-board the spacecraft with predicted pulse arrivals at some reference location, the spacecraft position can be determined autonomously with accuracies on the order of 5 kilometres. For a spacecraft at a distance of 10 astronomical units from Earth (e.g., Earth-Saturn), this means an improvement by a factor of 8 compared to conventional methods. Therefore this new technology is an alternative to standard navigation based on radio tracking by ground stations, without the disadvantages of uncertainty increasing with distance from Earth and the dependence on ground control.
Comments: 4 pages, 3 figures, 1 table, to be published in the proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Space Technology, held on 15-17 Sept. 2011, Athens, Greece Subjects: High Energy Astrophysical Phenomena (astro-ph.HE); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM); Space Physics (physics.space-ph) Cite as: arXiv:1111.1138v1 [astro-ph.HE] Submission history From: Mike Georg Bernhardt [view email] [v1] Fri, 4 Nov 2011 14:24:13 GMT (424kb,D)