The current primary method of deepspace navigation is the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN). High-performance navigation is achieved using Delta Differential One-Way Range techniques that utilize simultaneous observations from multiple DSN sites, and incorporate observations of quasars near the line-of-sight to a spacecraft in order to improve the range and angle measurement accuracies.

Over the past four decades, x-ray astronomers have identified a number of x-ray pulsars with pulsed emissions having stabilities comparable to atomic clocks. The x-ray pulsar-based navigation and time determination (XNAV) system uses phase measurements from these sources to establish autonomously the position of the detector, and thus the spacecraft, relative to a known reference frame, much as the Global Positioning System (GPS) uses phase measurements from radio signals from several satellites to establish the position of the user relative to an Earth-centered fixed frame of reference. While a GPS receiver uses an antenna to detect the radio signals, XNAV uses a detector array to capture the individual x-ray photons from the xray pulsars. The navigation solution relies on detailed x-ray source models, signal processing, navigation and timing algorithms, and analytical tools that form the basis of an autonomous XNAV system.

Through previous XNAV development efforts, some techniques have been established to utilize a pulsar pulse time-ofarrival (TOA) measurement to correct a position estimate. One well-studied approach, based upon Kalman filter methods, optimally adjusts a dynamic orbit propagation solution based upon the offset in measured and predicted pulse TOA. In this delta position estimator scheme, previously estimated values of spacecraft position and velocity are utilized from an onboard orbit propagator. Using these estimated values, the detected arrival times at the spacecraft of pulses from a pulsar are compared to the predicted arrival times defined by the pulsar’s pulse timing model. A discrepancy provides an estimate of the spacecraft position offset, since an error in position will relate to the measured time offset of a pulse along the line of sight to the pulsar. XNAV researchers have been developing additional enhanced approaches to process the photon TOAs to arrive at an estimate of spacecraft position, including those using maximum-likelihood estimation, digital phase locked loops, and “single photon processing” schemes that utilize all available time data associated with each photon. Using pulsars from separate, non-coplanar locations provides range and range-rate measurements in each pulsar’s direction. Combining these different pulsar measurements solves for offsets in position and velocity in three dimensions, and provides accurate overall navigation for deep space vehicles.

This work was done by Suneel Sheikh of ASTER Labs, Inc., John Hanson of CrossTrac Engineering, Inc., and Paul Graven of Cateni, Inc. and Microcosm, Inc. for Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-16116-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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