According to this study, researchers found a team of NASA engineers has demonstrated fully autonomous X-ray navigation in space, a capability that could revolutionize NASA's ability in the future to pilot robotic spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond. The team carried out with an experiment called Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology. 
 
Technology showed that millisecond pulsars could be used to accurately determine the location of an object moving at thousands of miles per hour in space like how the Global Positioning System, widely known as GPS, provides positioning, navigation, and timing services to users on Earth with its constellation of 24 operating satellites.

Although it could take a few years to mature an X-ray navigation system practical for use on deep-space spacecraft, the fact that NASA engineers proved it could be done bodes well for future interplanetary space travel. System provides a new option for spacecraft to autonomously determine their locations outside the currently used Earth-based global navigation.

The networks because pulsars are accessible in virtually every conceivable fight regime, from low-Earth to deepest space. NICER, an observatory about the size of a washing machine, currently is studying neutron stars and their rapidly pulsating cohort, called pulsars.

Although these stellar oddities emit radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, observing in the X-ray band offers the greatest insights into these unusual, incredibly dense celestial objects, which, if compressed any further, would collapse completely into black holes. Just one teaspoonful of neutron star matter would weigh a billion tons on Earth.

The goal was to demonstrate that the system could locate NICER within a 10-mile radius as the space station sped around Earth at slightly more than 17,500 mph. Mitchell said, In fact, "a good portion" of the data showed positions that were accurate to within three miles. Team demonstrated the system, Winternitz said the team will focus on updating and fine-tuning both flight and ground software in preparation for a second experiment later in 2018.

The goal, which may take years to realize, would be to develop detectors and other hardware to make pulsar-based navigation readily available on future spacecraft. To advance the technology for operational use, teams will focus on reducing the size, weight, and power requirements and improving the sensitivity of the instruments.

"This successful demonstration firmly establishes the viability of X-ray pulsar navigation as a new autonomous navigation capability. We have shown that a mature version of this technology could enhance deep-space exploration anywhere within the solar system and beyond," Mitchell said. "It is an awesome technology first."

NICER is an Astrophysics Mission of Opportunity within NASA's Explorers program, which provides frequent flight opportunities for world-class scientific investigations from space utilizing innovative, streamlined and efficient management approaches within the heliophysics and astrophysics science areas. NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate funds the SEXTANT component of the mission through its Game Changing Development Program.