China announced plans on Thursday to launch a satellite designed for helping vehicles headed for deep space navigate through the void by using X-rays emitted by pulsars to determine locations and vectors, according to Xinhua.
The satellite, XPNAV-1, developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC Fifth Academy), will be launched sometime in November. The 200-kilogram instrument is fitted with two detectors that measure periodic X-ray signals emitted by pulsars in the galaxy.
Pulsars are neutron stars that spin rapidly and produce radiation beams at specific speeds. They do this like clockwork — so scientists studying a specific pulsar can determine exactly when it will be emitting another wave of radiation. Some experts have long thought that pulsars could essentially act like signal buoys for autonomous spacecraft. If we have a good map of where pulsars are located in the galaxy, we can measure the X-ray signals they produce in order to create a GPS-like system for pinpointing a spacecraft’s exact location in deep space.
XPNAV-1 will basically be tasked with testing out the two X-ray detectors and collecting signals for pulsars as the first step toward creating a database for pulsar navigation.
This is a pretty wild mission, but it’s nothing new compared to the recent missions and initiatives China has been running with in the past few years. Just recently, the country launched its second space station into orbit, announced plans to build the world’s biggest tourist spacecraft, and launched the first quantum satellite into orbit. China, in short, is looking to overthrow the United States to take the throne as the world’s dominant space power.
And this is just part of a larger effort to become a superpower for science and technology. It’s unclear exactly how practical pulsar navigation will be in the short-term — for now, NASA’s Deep Space Network, is more than enough for helping us get around the solar system. Once we master interstellar travel, however, pulsar navigation will become more and more relevant. And that’s why China is placing its bets early with this upcoming launch.