NASA might just have found the key to autonomous spacecrafts with its Galactic Positioning System

The concept of authentically autonomous spacecraft just isn’t something that’s had much credence… until now. Scientists at NASA are currently engineering a Galactic Positioning System that will enable us (read: them) to determine with accuracy the position of an entity in space relative to other bodies, something that’s been hitherto unrealisable.

NASA might just have found the key to autonomous spacecrafts with its Galactic Positioning System

The Galactic Positioning System relies on a method was was developed using the grandly named Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer telescope, which resides on the International Space Station.

The telescope was used to monitor the fog-like radiation throughout space, which engulfs pulsars – celestial objects which emit electromagnetic radiation. The pulsation emitted by these objects is measured by the time gaps in between its pulses or ‘blips’ (around four milliseconds). Comparison with three different pulsar blips, in addition to a fourth for calibration, enables the craft to determine its relative location.

This is unprecedented. Until now, unmanned spacecraft have been launched into space without much of a definite trajectory. They have resolute targets – distant planets or moons to photograph – but the extent to which they can be steered is limited. The accuracy, for example, required to manoeuvre a spacecraft into a distant moon’s orbit has until now been wholly unattainable.

The Galactic Positioning System hones spatial awareness, enabling us to determine the position of vessel in relation to other cosmic entities. “You could thread a needle to get into orbit around the moon of a distant planet instead of doing a flyby,” NASA scientist Zaven Arzoumanian explained to Live Science.

What’s more, the entity could be used to save space missions gone awry: The new invention “could also provide a fallback, so that if crewed mission loses contact with the Earth they’d still have navigation systems on board that are autonomous,” Arzoumanian continued.

It promises far more exotic things too. Manned flights to Mars just became a lot safer, and unmanned space exploration could go even further afield into the deepest recesses of space. It frees up engineers to create a spacecraft that actually doesn’t require human contact until completion of its assigned mission. Meanwhile, your boss is mulling over how to license one of these for her employees…

Caution is, as ever, advised. There’s nothing, in theory, preventing the defection of these autonomous spacecraft, only to have them return to Earth with a vengeance, hungry for revenge on their thankless and neglectful creators. Also, there’s the not-so-negligible fact that even NASA is falling victim to automation, with the need for human contact done away with. If jobs are eluding the MIT-borne physicists of the world, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Image: Mat Hampson, used under Creative Commons

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