Space communications could soon take place using X-rays, the same way radio waves or lasers are used today. These high-energy electromagnetic waves could also be used to assist navigation in deep space, according to NASA engineers.
Communication systems utilizing X-ray signals would not be blocked when a spacecraft enters an alien atmosphere. This potential new generation would also provide faster communications with vehicles, carrying a greater amount of data over a given time than possible with radio.
"While we are using X-ray navigation to guide us to Pluto, we might also use X-ray communication to talk back to Earth," Keith Gendreau from the Goddard Space Flight Center, said.
The Nicer/Sextant mission will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) in August 2016, designed to examine X-rays emanating from neutron stars, in an effort to study processes occurring in the centers of the stellar remnants. Experiments will also explore X-ray navigation systems, allowing spacecraft to orientate themselves using X-ray signals from pulsars, which also produce X-rays, visible from our solar system. The periodic pulsing from these bodies is unique, allowing spacecraft to orientate themselves using the distinctive signals like interstellar lighthouses.
The Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (Nicer) will examine distant neutron stars, which are denser than the nucleus of an atom.
"NICER will enable rotation-resolved spectroscopy of the thermal and non-thermal emissions of neutron stars in the soft (0.2-12 keV) X-ray band with unprecedented sensitivity, probing interior structure, the origins of dynamic phenomena, and the mechanisms that underlie the most powerful cosmic particle accelerators known," Nicer mission planners wrote.
The Station Explorer for X-Ray Timing and Navigation (Sextant) will test the new method of navigation, along with communications systems capable of a new generation of missions, far from the Earth.
"The X-ray navigation and communications project element will focus on the development of the X-ray based technologies capable of providing accurate navigation and high bandwidth communications beyond the inner solar system," NASA's Space Technology Game Changing Development Web site stated.
Pulsars are distributed nearly evenly around space, providing the ability to create a three-dimension map, something not possible with star charts. This navigational system would also be superior to radio signals from Earth, which can only provide a directional beam that comes from a single direction.
Launch of the Nicer/Sextant mission is currently scheduled for late 2016.
Several organizations around the world have been studying the idea of navigating by pulsars for decades, but have been unable to convince NASA to design and launch a spacecraft to test the idea.