This article was originally published on March 30, 2012.
The system is reminiscent of sailors steering using the stars and the moon but using neutron stars to set a course precisely through the universe. The new system would use X-ray light from pulsars to ‘triangulate’ a position in space and works everywhere in the universe to within a few miles.
But many leave behind compact, incredibly dense remnants known as neutron stars. Those detected have strong magnetic fields that focus emission into two highly directional beams. Neutron stars rotate rapidly and if the beam points in the direction of the Earth we see a pulse of radiation at extremely regular intervals and hence they are called pulsar.
Their periodic signals have timing stabilities comparable to atomic clocks and provide characteristic time signatures that can be used as natural navigation beacons, similar to the use of GPS satellites for navigation on Earth.
Werner Becker, professor of astrophysics at Max Planck Institute, Germany, who led the study, says: “Looking forward, it’s incredibly exciting to think that we have now the technology to chart our route to other stars.“