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China launches pulsar navigation test satellite

November 14, 2016

China has launched a satellite which will conduct in-orbit experiments to test autonomous spacecraft navigation.

The XPNAV-1 pulsar navigation satellite will test X-ray pulsar navigation, a navigation tool in which periodic X-ray signals emitted from pulsars are used to determine the location of a spacecraft in deep space, according to NASASpaceflight.com.

This technology could help reduce the spacecraft's reliance on ground-based navigation methods and is expected to lead to autonomous spacecraft navigation in the future.

While in orbit, the satellite will undergo tests on its detector functions and space environment adaptability, Chinese news agency Xinhua reported last week.

The satellite and the Long March-11 rocket were designed by academies affiliated with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

Current ground-based navigation methods are limited by the time delay between spacecraft and the Earth, NASASpaceflight.com explained. But for a certain type of pulsars, known as "millisecond pulsars", pulses of radiation occur with the regularity and precision of an atomic clock.

This means that, in some scenarios, the pulsar X-ray can take less time to estimate a location—leading to more precise measurements of a spacecraft's location.

The technique must be tested in space because X-rays from pulsars are absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere.

XPNAV-1 will detect the X-ray signals of 26 nearby pulsars and create a database for pulsar navigation. The work is expected to be completed within five to ten years.

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