Feeds

Pulsars: the GPS beacons of the cosmos

Mars is here – down to the metre

New hybrid storage solutions

Want to navigate over huge distances with nearly superhuman accuracy? All you need is a laptop, the right software, and some way to keep track of the signals of distant pulsars.

What began as an attempt to improve the search for gravitational waves has had the unexpected secondary outcome of demonstrating that pulsars could just as easily become a platform for interplanetary navigation. And while the astronomers behind the project don't anticipate humans setting off for Alpha Centauri any time soon, they believe their modern version of “navigating by the stars” would be accurate enough to keep track over interstellar distances.

CSIRO Astronomy and Space Sciences research scientist Dr George Hobbs explains that the navigational possibilities arose out of work to refine TEMPO2, software that's used in the analysis of pulsars.

Pulsars should be able to help test the theory behind gravitational waves, he explains, because they provide a “timing pulse” that should make a gravitational wave from cataclysmic events (an exploding galaxy a galactic-size explosion* for example) detectable. But only on condition that you're certain you can eliminate every other possible explanation of an apparently mis-phased pulse.

But only if they can be characterised with fanatical precision, down into the nanosecond level, and all possible sources of error (whether it's errors in the clocks that time-stamp the signal, wobbles in the pulsar's rotation, errors in the telescope, and so on).

That's where TEMPO2 comes in: created by Hobbs in collaboration with RT Edwards and RN Manchester, it takes work begun in the 1970s (the original TEMPO) and updated it for the gravitational-wave hunt – and incidentally created a reference point suitable for solar system navigation.

In measuring pulsars, Dr Hobbs explained, “we need to know the centre of mass of the solar system to within a metre or so … and we updated TEMPO2 to allow you to fit for an error in the position between your telescope and the centre of mass of the solar system.”

That provided a “Eureka!” moment for X P Deng, a Chinese student working with CSIRO, who figured out that with such an accurate way to measure the centre of mass of the solar system, the same technique could be applied to spacecraft. His paper is at Arxiv, here.

A spacecraft travelling between Earth and Mars, for example, would only need a way to observe pulsars (“An on-board x-ray telescope would work well”, Dr Hobbs said), and enough processing power to run TEMPO2, and “you could identify where you are, anywhere in the Galaxy”, he told The Register.

And how much grunt is needed to run TEMPO2? “It's free software that I can run on my Mac laptop with no worries at all,” he said. ®

*Bootnote: All right, all right. Here we are looking at the universe and an author can get pedantry over one poorly-phrased sentence. I've corrected it. RC. ®

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
Thought that last dinosaur was BIG? This one's bloody ENORMOUS
Weighed several adult elephants, contend boffins
Chelyabinsk-sized SURPRISE asteroid to skim Earth, satnav birds
Space rock appears out of nowhere, buzzes planet on Sunday
City hidden beneath England's Stonehenge had HUMAN ABATTOIR. And a pub
Boozed-up ancients drank beer before tearing corpses apart
'Duck face' selfie in SPAAAACE: Rosetta's snap with bird comet
Probe prepares to make first landing on fast-moving rock
Square Kilometre Array reveals its 1.6TB-a-day storage and network rigs
Boolardy Engineering Test Array - aka BETA - is about to come out of Beta
LOHAN invites ENTIRE REG READERSHIP to New Mexico shindig
Well, those of you who back our Kickstarter tin-rattling...
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile
Data demand and the rise of virtualization is challenging IT teams to deliver storage performance, scalability and capacity that can keep up, while maximizing efficiency.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.