Researchers will create a spacecraft to travel through space with X-rays from dead stars

Credit image: NASA - Pulsar Punches Hole in Stellar Disk
Credit image: NASA - Pulsar Punches Hole in Stellar Disk

Article by: Andacs Robert Eugen, on 04 May 2022, at 08:58 am Los Angeles time

Until now, spaceships needed a lot of things to be able to navigate the distant universe. Sunlight, energy, fuel, and much more.

No one thought to use the elements that space gives to make the journey even longer and to get further into the Universe.

Now a team of researchers and aerospace engineers has developed a new way to create spacecraft so that they can use signals from multiple pulsars to navigate the distant universe.

The pulsars are the remnants of a star that make one to hundreds of rotations per second, and they have a diameter between 12 and 15 miles.

However, a very important feature of pulsars and also the basis of the study is that they emit light in the wavelength range of X-rays.

"We can use star trackers to determine the direction a spacecraft is pointing, but to learn the precise location of the spacecraft, we rely on radio signals sent between the spacecraft and the Earth, which can take a lot of time and requires use of oversubscribed infrastructure, like NASA's Deep Space Network," said Zach Putnam, professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Illinois.

"Using X-ray navigation eliminates those two factors, but until now, required an initial position estimate of the spacecraft as a starting point. This research presents a system that finds candidates for possible spacecraft locations without prior information, so the spacecraft can navigate autonomously."

"This system would give spacecraft autonomy and reduce the dependency on the ground. X-ray pulsar navigation gets us around that and allows us to determine where we are, without calling."

According to the researchers, the new spacecraft model will have to analyze possible pulsars that prove useful, and this is a little difficult to achieve if computers and some state-of-the-art scientific elements are not used.

"The issue with pulsars is that they spin so fast that the signal repeats itself a lot," he said. "By comparison, GPS repeats every two weeks. With pulsars, while there are an infinite number of possible spacecraft locations, we know how far apart these candidate locations are from each other.

"We are looking at determining spacecraft position within domains that have diameters on the order of multiple astronomical units, like the size of the orbit of Jupiter-something like a square with one billion miles on a side. The challenge we are trying to address is, how do we intelligently observe pulsars and fully determine all possible spacecraft locations in a domain without using an excessive amount of compute resources," continued Putnam.

In any case, scientists have a plus here, thanks to the algorithm discovered by graduate student Kevin Lohan.

It can determine the perfect pulsars by combining observations of them to determine the positions of the spacecraft.

The algorithm processes all the candidate intersections in two or three dimensions.

"We used the algorithm to study which pulsars we should observe to reduce the number of candidate spacecraft locations within a given domain," said Putnam. Results showed that observing sets of pulsars with longer periods and small angular separations could significantly reduce the number of candidate solutions within a given domain.

Source: IEEE Xplore

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