CSIRO scientists have written software that could guide spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, show that the planet Nibiru doesn’t exist … and prove that the Earth goes around the Sun.
Pulsars are small spinning stars that deliver regular ‘blips’ or ‘pulses’ of radio waves and, sometimes, X-rays.
Scientists proposed pulsar navigation as early as 1974. Putting it into practice has recently come closer, with the development of fairly small, lightweight X-ray detectors that could receive the X-ray pulses that certain pulsars emit. NASA is exploring the technique.
“For deep-space navigation, we would use pulsars that had been observed for many years with radio telescopes such as Parkes, so that the timing of their pulses is very well measured,” said CSIRO’s Dr Dick Manchester, a member of the research team. “Then on board the spacecraft you’d use an X-ray telescope, which is much smaller and lighter.”
Dr Hobbs and his colleagues have made a very detailed simulation of a spacecraft navigating autonomously to Mars using this combination of technologies and their TEMPO2 software.
“The spacecraft can determine its position to within about 20 km, and its velocity to within 10 cm per second,” said Dr Hobbs. “To our knowledge, this is the best accuracy anyone has ever been able to demonstrate.”
“Unlike previous work, we’ve taken into account that real pulsars are not quite perfect, they have timing glitches and so on. We’ve allowed for that.”
The same pulsar software can be used to work out the masses of objects in the solar system.
In 2010 Dr Hobbs and his colleagues used an earlier version of the software to ‘weigh’ the planets out as far as Saturn — to six decimal places.
The Earth is travelling around the Sun, and this movement affects exactly when pulsar signals arrive here. To remove this effect, astronomers calculate when the pulses would have arrived at the Solar System’s centre of mass, around which all the planets orbit.
“If the pulsar signals appear to be coming in at the wrong time, we know that the masses of the planets that we are using in the equations must be wrong, and we can correct for this,” Dr Hobbs explained.
The new version of the software lets the astronomers rule out unseen masses, including any supposedly undiscovered planets, such as the notorious Nibiru.
“Even if a planet is hard to see, there’s no way to disguise its gravitational pull,” Dr Hobbs said. “If we don’t detect the gravitational pull, then there’s no planet there. Full stop.”
They have eliminated the Planet Nibiru out to a certain distance from the sun (down to a certain mass threshold) due to lack of gravitational effect.
We demonstrate how observations of pulsars can be used to help navigate a spacecraft travelling in the solar system. We make use of archival observations of millisecond pulsars from the Parkes radio telescope in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the method and highlight issues, such as pulsar spin irregularities, which need to be accounted for. We show that observations of four millisecond pulsars every seven days using a realistic X-ray telescope on the spacecraft throughout a journey from Earth to Mars can lead to position determinations better than approx. 20km and velocity measurements with a precision of approx. 0.1m/s.
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