NASA Taps the Power of Zombie Stars in Two-in-One Instrument
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This artist’s rendition shows the NICER/SEXTANT payload that NASA recently selected as its next Explorer Mission of Opportunity. The 56-telescope payload will fly on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
NASA recently selected a new mission called the Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) to not only reveal the physics that make neutron stars the densest objects in nature, but also to demonstrate a groundbreaking navigation technology that could revolutionize the agency’s ability to travel to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond.
The multi-purpose mission, also known as NICER/SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), consists of 56 X-ray telescopes in a compact bundle, their associated silicon detectors, and a number of other advanced technologies. Both NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Explorers Program and the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Program are contributing to the mission’s development.
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These nested shells of X-ray mirrors will fly on a new two-in-one instrument that will study neutron stars and demonstrate X-ray navigation. Credit: Pat Izzo
The Latest Incarnation of Celestial-Based
As history has shown, there really is nothing
new under the sun. Since the beginning of
recorded history, if not before, humans have
used the stars to find their way. In 2017 a
team led by NASA astrophysicists and engineers
plans to demonstrate a potentially game-changing
technology that would use pulsars to help space
travelers and scientific spacecraft navigate the
far reaches of the solar system.
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In addition to NASA Goddard scientists and engineers, the mission team includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and commercial partners, who are providing spaceflight hardware. The Naval Research Laboratory and universities across the United States, as well as in Canada and Mexico, are providing science expertise.
Space Station Bound
Slightly larger than a typical college dormitory refrigerator, NICER/SEXTANT will be deployed on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2017. It will fly as an external attached payload on one of the ISS ExPRESS Logistics Carriers, unpressurized platforms used for experiments and storage.
The X-ray instrument’s primary objective is to learn more about the interior composition of neutron stars, the remnants of massive stars that, after exhausting their nuclear fuel, exploded and collapsed into super-dense spheres about the size of New York City. Their intense gravity crushes an astonishing amount of matter — often more than 1.4 times the content of the sun or at least 460,000 Earths — into these city-sized balls, creating the densest objects known in the universe. Just one teaspoonful of neutron star matter would weigh a billion tons on Earth.
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NICER/SEXTANT Principal Investigator Keith
Gendreau holds an assembly of X-ray focusing
mirrors similar to the type that will fly on
his mission in 2017.
Credit: Bill Hrybyk.
Although the nuclear-fusion fires that sustained their parent stars are extinguished, neutron stars still shine with heat left over from their explosive formation, and from radiation generated by their magnetic fields that became intensely concentrated as the core collapsed.
Although neutron stars emit radiation across the spectrum, observing in the X-ray band offers the greatest insights into their structure, the ultimate stability of their pulses as precise clock “ticks,” and the high-energy, dynamic phenomena that they host, including starquakes, thermonuclear explosions, and the most powerful magnetic fields known in the universe.
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NASA’s new Explorer Mission of Opportunity
will study rapidly rotating neutron stars
called pulsars. NASA’s Chandra X-ray
Observatory captured this image of the Vela
pulsar about 1,000 light years from Earth.
Credit: NASA/CXC/University of Toronto/
M. Durant, et al
This subgroup of pulsating neutron stars, called pulsars, rotate rapidly, emitting from their magnetic poles powerful beams of light that sweep around as the star spins, much like a lighthouse. At Earth, these beams are seen as flashes of light, blinking on and off at intervals from seconds down to milliseconds.
Because of their predictable pulsations — especially millisecond pulsars, which are the target of the navigation demonstration — “they are extremely reliable celestial clocks” and can provide high-precision timing just like the atomic clock signals supplied through the 26-satellite, military-operated Global Positioning System (GPS), an Earth-centric system that weakens the farther one travels out beyond Earth orbit and into the solar system, Arzoumanian said. “Pulsars, on the other hand, are accessible in virtually every conceivable flight regime, from low-Earth orbit to interplanetary to deepest space,” Gendreau added.
As a result, NICER/SEXTANT also will demonstrate the viability of pulsar-based navigation. “The hardware needed for neutron star science is identical to that needed for pulsar-based navigation,” Gendreau said. “In fact, the mission’s two goals share many of the same targets and the same operational concept. The differences are on the back end in terms of how the data will be used.”
Imagine a technology that would allow space travelers to transmit gigabytes of data per second over interplanetary distances or to navigate to Mars and beyond using powerful beams of light emanating from rotating neutron stars. The concept isn't farfetched. In fact, Goddard astrophysicists Keith Gendreau and Zaven Arzoumanian plan to fly a multi-purpose instrument on the International Space Station to demonstrate the viability of two groundbreaking navigation and communication technologies and, from the same platform, gather scientific data revealing the physics of dense matter in neutron stars. Credit: NASA
To demonstrate the navigation technology’s viability, the NICER/SEXTANT payload will use its telescopes to detect X-ray photons within these powerful beams of light to estimate the arrival times of the pulses. With these measurements, the system will use specially developed algorithms to stitch together an on-board navigation solution.
If an interplanetary mission were equipped with such a navigational device, it would be able to calculate its location autonomously, independent of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), Gendreau said. DSN, considered the most sensitive telecommunications system in the world, allows NASA to continuously observe and communicate with interplanetary spacecraft. However, like GPS, the system is Earth-centric. DSN-supplied navigational solutions also degrade the farther one travels out into the solar system. Furthermore, missions must share time on the network, Gendreau said.
“We’re excited about NICER/SEXTANT’s possibilities,” Gendreau added. “The experiment meets critical science objectives and is a stepping-stone for technology applications that meet a variety of NASA needs. It’s rare that you get an opportunity to do a cross-cutting experiment like this.”
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NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Edited by Waspie_Dwarf, 24 March 2014 - 01:14 AM.