X-ray pulsar-based navigation

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X-ray pulsar-based navigation and timing (XNAV) is a theoretical navigation technique whereby the periodic X-ray signals emitted from pulsars are used to determine the location of a vehicle, such as a spacecraft in deep space. A vehicle using XNAV would compare received X-ray signals with a database of known pulsar frequencies and locations. Similar to GPS, this comparison would allow the vehicle to triangulate its position accurately (±5 km). The advantage of using X-ray signals over radio waves is that X-ray telescopes can be made smaller and lighter.[1][2][3]

Spacecraft navigation[edit]

SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology) is a NASA-funded project being developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center that will test XNAV on-orbit on board the International Space Station in connection with the NICER project. It is currently planned for 2017.[4][5]

On 9 November 2016 the Chinese Academy of Sciences launched an experimental pulsar navigation satellite called XPNAV 1.[6][7] XPNAV-1 will characterize 26 nearby pulsars for their pulse frequency and intensity to create a navigation database that could be used by future operational missions. The satellite is expected to operate for five to ten years. XPNAV-1 is the first pulsar navigation mission launched into orbit.

Aircraft navigation[edit]

In 2014, a feasibility study was carried out by the National Aerospace Laboratory of Amsterdam, for use of pulsars in place of GPS in navigation. The advantage of pulsar navigation would be more available signals than from satnav constellations, being unjammable, with the broad range of frequencies available, and security of signal sources from destruction by antisatellite weapons.[8]


  1. ^ Commissariat, Tushna (4 June 2014). "Pulsars map the way for space missions". Physics World. 
  2. ^ "An Interplanetary GPS Using Pulsar Signals". MIT Technology Review. 23 May 2013. 
  3. ^ Becker, Werner; Bernhardt, Mike G.; Jessner, Axel (2013-05-21). "Autonomous Spacecraft Navigation With Pulsars". arXiv:1305.4842Freely accessible [astro-ph.HE]. 
  4. ^ "NASA Builds Unusual Testbed for Analyzing X-ray Navigation Technologies". NASA. 20 May 2013. 
  5. ^ "The Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR Mission". NASA. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  6. ^ Krebs, Gunter. "XPNAV 1". Gunter's Space Page. Retrieved 2016-11-01. 
  7. ^ "Chinese Long March 11 launches first Pulsar Navigation Satellite into Orbit". Spaceflight101.com. 10 November 2016. 
  8. ^ Bauke Stelma (8 June 2015). "Pulsar navigation: piloting aircraft with the aid of the stars". ExtremeTech. 

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