China launched a satellite this month that may be the key to a successful manned Mars mission and eventual colonization of the red planet beating out a similar NASA system scheduled to launch next year.
The world's first X-ray navigation satellite acts like a GPS guidance system for spacecraft traveling beyond low Earth orbit and is intended to help China put rovers on the moon and Mars.
The X-ray Pulsar Navigation 1 (XPNAV) satellite measures radiation emitted by pulsars to pinpoint the exact location of a spacecraft, John Pye, manager of the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, told VICE News.
"In a nutshell, it is the cosmic equivalent of GPS."
Using pulsar navigation will cut the hours-long lag time current spaceships suffer when traveling near the outer planets, according to China's official Xinhua news agency.
"X-ray pulsar navigation techniques will help reduce the reliance of spacecraft on ground-based navigation methods and are expected to achieve autonomous spacecraft navigation in the future."
If everything goes well, the new Chinese satellite will spend the next 10 years creating a database of radiation emitted from 26 pulsars measuring their X-ray emissions to create a new type of navigation system. The system will make space travel cheaper because ships won't need to rely on Earth-based antennas bringing humanity one step closer to interplanetary travel, Pye told VICE News.
"Having at least a semi-autonomous system makes things easier in terms of navigation as you get to the outer solar system, the outer planets like Jupiter, Saturn and beyond."