How are pulsars used to identify our position in space?

Read on to find out how these beacons of electromagnetic radiation act like GPS satellites

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Artist’s impression of the pulsar PSR J0348+0432 and its white dwarf companion

Artist’s impression of the pulsar PSR J0348+0432 and its white dwarf companion

Asked by Shaun Williams

Pulsars could effectively act as the GPS satellites of deep-space exploration due to the ease with which they can be located and identified. As a type of neutron star – the dense remains of a star that has reached the end of its life – they emit pulses of radiation with a very regular period and directionality, making them easy to identify.

This means a deep-space vessel could use the location of the Sun, along with at least three pulsars to triangulate its position in the cosmos. While the Sun is technically not stationary in space, this can be corrected by enabling pulsars to guide spacecraft in the same way GPS guides our cars.

Answered by Sophie Allen from the National Space Centre

Image Credit: ESO

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