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.”
Pulsars are magnetized neutron stars in binary systems that spin very fast and draw gas from normal stars, which is then emitted in the form of radiation. Some of these stars emit X-rays with the precision of an atomic clock and it’s by mapping these that China hopes to create a navigation system capable of tracking the location of ships in deep space.
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.”
Currently, spacecraft must rely on a series of Earth-based antennas, in California, Australia, and Spain, to determine their location in space, which can take hours for ships flying near the outer planets.
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.”
Like the ancient oceangoing seafarers of yesteryear, today’s explorers need a way to navigate accurately when they’re far from home, which is why NASA has been working on a similar system. With pulsar-based navigation, travelers in deep space will be able to determine their location quicker and more accurately than by relying on Earth bound antenna.
This new technology, which NASA is also chasing, will help the country’s ambitious space program put rovers on the surface of the moon and Mars, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics researcher Suneel Sheikh told VICE News.
“This continued research will greatly support future humankind space exploration.”
While China still lags behind the U.S. in the space race, the country is devoting enormous national resources to catch up. Already, China has put its second space station into orbit, built the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and laid plans for a lunar landing.
The country has also begun construction of a super heavy rocket in the same class as NASA’s SLS capable of carrying crew and cargo to the surface of the moon and is looking to the build the world’s largest commercial spaceship capable of carrying 20 passengers 80 miles up into the atmosphere.
With prices predicted to fall around $200,000 a ticket, the commercial spacecraft will be competing with U.S. space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic.
Meanwhile, American astronauts are forced to ride Russian rockets into space and the recent Trump election means NASA may soon be forced to ditch the SLS and Orion leaving America solely reliant on private spacecraft.
What do you think about China’s innovative navigation system?
[Featured Image by 3DSculptor/Thinkstock]