Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Spacecraft Navigation by Pulsar

Currently spacecraft find their position and velocity using radio signals sent back and forth from earth-based antennas. That's quite accurate for the components of position and velocity in the direction of earth, but in other directions the accuracy is not so good. The authors of the preprint Autonomous Spacecraft Navigation Based on Pulsar Timing Information propose using an x-ray telescope onboard the spacecraft to track the signals emitted by pulsars, which rival atomic clocks in accuracy. New models of x-ray telescopes are getting small and accurate enough to find the position and velocity of a spacecraft more accurately than an earth-based system, for interplanetary missions when the spacecraft is more than 1AU from earth.