NASA’s Got a Plan for a ‘Galactic Positioning System’ to Save Astronauts Lost in Space

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By Rafi Letzter

COLUMBUS, Ohio — 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.”

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