Pulsar-Based Spacecraft Navigation Technology

The Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), recently selected by NASA as its next Explorer Mission of Opportunity, will gather scientific data revealing the physics of the densest matter allowed in nature, and - from the same platform - will demonstrate a groundbreaking navigation technology. The multi-purpose mission, known as NICER/SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), consists of 56 X-ray telescopes in a compact bundle, their associated silicon detectors, and many other advanced technologies. The SEXTANT mission will demonstrate the use of pulsars - nature's lighthouses - as navigational beacons. With its sensitive telescopes, SEXTANT will lock onto multiple pulsars, allowing it to determine its precise location in the galaxy. Future spacecraft could navigate to distant planets using this new capability in much the same way that we use GPS on Earth.