Image: Artist’s impression of ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft,
imagined as if it navigated in deep space using pulsar
signals. Credit: ESA/MPE.

Pulsar Navigation: Beacons in the Darkness


In a world of search engines, GPS and always-on connectivity, I sometimes wonder what’s happening to serendipity. Over the years, I’ve made some of my best library finds by browsing the stacks, just taking some time off and walking around scanning the book titles. Odd ideas show up, mental connections get forged, and new insights emerge. Targeted searching is generally what we do (think Google), but never forget the value of the odd juxtaposition that comes from random wanderings. Too much targeting can produce tunnel vision.

For that matter, have you noticed how hard it is to get lost these days? I’m just back from Oakland, where Marc Millis and I went for interviews with the History Channel in the gorgeous setting of Chabot Space & Science Center in the hills above the city. The view on the drive up was spectacular, and my guide used an iPad to continually update our position on the map, so getting lost was impossible. My son Miles drove up from his home south of San Francisco and after the interview he drove me back to the hotel, where we met Marc for dinner at a nearby restaurant. All the way down from Chabot, he was keeping one eye on the smartphone he was using for navigation, flawlessly threading his way through streets that were new to him.

Maybe someday the whole idea of getting lost and running into the unexpected will seem quaint — we’ll know where we are at every moment. I can see the value in that even though I enjoy occasionally taking random streets just to see where they lead and surprising myself. Watching city lights under flawless night skies from my window on a Southwest flight last night, I was musing about navigation and stars and remembering being taught the now antiquated art of celestial navigation by a gruff flight instructor who used to do it for real back in the 1930s, when he was flying biplanes and knew how to read the stars like most of us read a roadmap.

Of course, navigating among the stars is going to demand much more precision than this when we’re talking about actual interstellar missions. This morning, pre-coffee and still jet lagged, I was looking through some saved links and ran across a BBC story called Dead Stars to Guide Spacecraft, recounting the work of Werner Becker (Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics). Becker’s team has been studying positioning methods for spacecraft using the X-ray signals sent by pulsars, rapidly rotating and extremely precise sources of emissions.

Read more: Pulsar Navigation: Beacons in the Darkness — Centauri Dreams.

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