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NASA Demos First X-Ray Navigation in Space

NASA has performed the first fully autonomous X-ray navigation in space, which could help future robotic spacecraft to travel to deep space locations.

The space agency said Thursday a team of engineers carried out the experiment called the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology, or SEXTANT, on Nov. 11.

The demonstration was conducted through NASA‘s Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer observatory, which studies neutron stars and their rapidly pulsating counterparts, dubbed pulsars.

SEXTANT revealed that millisecond pulsars could be used to identify the location of an object traveling at thousands of miles per hour in space — similar to the way that global positioning systems deliver positioning, navigation and timing data.

A system developed through SEXTANT worked to predict the location of NICER as the observatory orbited the Earth while attached to the International Space Station.

The NASA team will update and fine-tune the system’s flight and ground software to prepare for a second experiment later this year.

The group’s ultimate goal is to create detectors and other hardware to provide pulsar-based navigation for future spacecraft.

The team would need to reduce size, weight and power requirements as well as improve the sensitivity of the navigation technology to make it available for operational use.

Jason Mitchell, SEXTANT project manager, said his team is also studying the potential use of X-ray navigation in human spaceflight.

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