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Dead stars may guide the astronauts across the Universe very soon

New Delhi, Sat, 31 Mar 2012 NI Wire

A new technology will soon be developed by the scientists which will enable them to locate anywhere in space more precisely by catching the X-ray signals from pulsars. Through this technology the space crafts will soon be able to navigate through the cosmos using a specific type of dead star as a kind of GPS.

These dead stars are dense and rotate very rapidly, passing their emission across the cosmos at rates that are so stable they emulate atomic clock performance.

A team of German scientists are engaged in developing such a technology and said this timing property is perfect for interstellar navigation.

If a spacecraft carries the equipment to detect the pulses, it will be than enable to compare their arrival time with those expected at the specific location. Through this it will be possible to determine the position of the spacecraft more precisely for just five kilometres anywhere in the galaxy.

"The principle is so simple that it will definitely have applications,"the BBC quoted Werner Becker from the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching as saying.

"These pulsars are everywhere in the Universe and their flashing is so predictable that it makes such an approach really straightforward,"he said.

The proposed technique is quite similar to the technology used in the Global Positioning System (GPS), which transmits the timing signals to the user from a constellation of satellites in orbit. But GPS is limited to earth and its atmosphere only and has no reach beyond the planet.

Presently, the mission controllers waiting to know the position of their spacecraft deep in the Solar System and then will study the differences in time radio communications take to travel to and from the satellite. Though, it is a complex process and will require numerous antennas across the Earth.

Moreover, this technique is far from precise, and the errors increase with the further as the probe moves.

NASA's Voyager satellites are the most distant spacecraft in operation at present and are now reaching the very edge of the Solar System, some 18 billion km away and the errors associated with their positions are on the order of several hundred km.

The uncertainty of the position for a probe at the reasonably short separation of Mar can be about 10km.

Though, it is uncertain that navigation by pulsar alert will find immediate use as the telescopic hardware that are used to detect the X-rays in space are very bulky and heavy.

Engineers have a task to minimize the technology that can allow the use of pulsar navigation unit practically possible.

"It becomes possible with the development of lightweight X-ray mirrors”.

"These are on the way for the next generation of X-ray telescopes. Current mirrors have a 100 times more weight and would be completely unusable.

"In 15-20 years, the new mirrors will be standard and our device will be ready to be built,"Becker said.

Becker believes that his navigation solution will definitely be useful on Solar System probes and will provide independent navigation for various interplanetary missions and perhaps for future ventures to Mars where we will require very high performance systems will be absolutely required for safety reasons.

In addition to that, he also likes the idea of humanity one day intruding across interstellar space.

"You know for GPS that if you go to another country, you have to buy the maps for your device. Well, we were joking with our students in Garching about selling maps for different galaxies for ships like Enterprise on Star Trek,"he added.

The details of the study have been presented at the UK National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester.

-With inputs from ANI.


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