Pulsar navigation may be our solution to getting around not just the Solar System but the regions beyond it. For millisecond pulsars, a subset of the pulsar population, seem to offer positioning, navigation, and timing data, enabling autonomous navigation for any spacecraft that can properly receive and interpret their signals. The news that NASA’s SEXTANT experiment has proven successful gives weight to the idea. Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology is all about developing X-ray navigation for future interplanetary travel.
At work here is NICER — Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer — which has been deployed on the International Space Station since June as an external payload. NICER deploys 52 X-ray telescopes and silicon-drift detectors in the detection of the pulsing neutron stars called pulsars. Radiation from their magnetic fields sweeps the sky in ways that can be useful. A recent demonstration used four millisecond pulsar targets — J0218+4232, B1821-24, J0030+0451, and J0437-4715 — to track NICER within a 10-mile radius as it orbited the Earth.
X-ray Pulsar Navigation (XNAV) has become an active area of research, pursued not just at NASA but by Chinese satellite testing and by conceptual studies at the European Space Agency. Having barely left our own planet, we are far ahead of ourselves to talk about a galactic positioning system for future spacecraft, but there is reason to believe that the principles of pulsar navigation can be extended to make accurate deep space navigation a reality.
Pulsars as Navigational Matrix
The SEXTANT experiment dovetails with a new paper from Clément Vidal (Universiteit Brussel, Belgium), whose work falls into the broader context of recent studies of unusual astrophysical phenomena. The author of the ambitious The Beginning and the End (Springer, 2014), Vidal’s work has been the subject of several articles in these pages (see, for example, A Test Case for Astroengineering and related entries accessible in the archives). In this era of the enigmatic KIC 8462852 and the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, we have begun to ask how to address possible extraterrestrial engineering within the confines of rigorous astrophysics.
Millisecond pulsars may offer a way to examine such questions, but it is important to point out at the outset the Vidal is not arguing that this type of pulsar is evidence of extraterrestrial engineering. What he is trying to do is ask a question with broader implications. How do we study unusual astrophysical phenomena in ways that include an extraterrestrial hypothesis? How, in fact, do we conclude when that hypothesis is remotely relevant? And are there ways to make observable and refutable predictions that would help us distinguish purely astrophysical phenomena from what Vidal calls ‘astrobiological’ phenomena that imply intelligence?
Image: An artist’s impression of an accreting X-ray millisecond pulsar. The inflowing material from the companion star forms a disk around the neutron star which is truncated at the edge of the pulsar magnetosphere. Credit & copyright: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center / Dana Berry.
We’ve seen in the analysis of KIC 8462852 how many hypotheses have been put forward to explain that star’s unusual light curves, with more and more attention now being paid to a natural explanation involving dust in the system. Vidal’s lengthy paper examines the question of millisecond pulsars being useful for navigation, as with our own civilization’s global navigation satellite systems, like the Global Positioning System (GPS) or the Russian GLONASS (GLObal NAvigation Satellite System).
If we can derive a navigational methodology out of astronomical objects found throughout the galaxy, it seems reasonable to believe that more advanced civilizations would have deduced the same facts and might be using a pulsar positioning system (PPS) in their own activities. Pulsar navigation might thus have SETI potential — might some future SETI candidate signal contain timing and positioning metadata? Might some astrophysical phenomena like pulsars be modified by advanced cultures for use as beacons?
And if we push the issue to its conclusion, is it conceivable that what we see as a pulsar navigation capability is the result of deliberate engineering on a vast scale, the sort of thing we’ve imagined the builders of Dyson spheres and Kardashev Type II civilizations engaging in? Vidal does not argue that this is the case, but calls instead for using pulsar navigation as a way into what he calls SETI-XNAV, a program of research that would use existing and future astronomical data to examine millisecond pulsars in the context of testable predictions.
Vidal sees this as a way to “join pulsar astrophysics, astrobiology and navigation science,” one whose benefits would include developing new methods to design more efficient global navigation satellite systems here on Earth even as we explore how to refine our early XNAV experiments. Not incidentally, we would also be examining our methods when, as seems inevitable, we are confronted with another case of an astrophysical object that raises questions about possible artificial origins.
Implications of Galactic Navigation
An ETI hypothesis has played around the idea of pulsars from the beginning, with a brief interest in extraterrestrial technologies leading to the objects being nicknamed ‘LGM stars,’ for ‘Little Green Men.’ But as Vidal explains, models explaining pulsar behavior are available that invoke nothing but natural processes. It’s fascinating to see that Italian astrophysicist Franco Pacini predicted pulsars based on his studies of neutron stars some months before their discovery was announced by Jocelyn Bell and Anthony Hewish in 1967. Vidal goes on to say:
Pacini’s and [Thomas] Gold’s models were the very first modeling attempts. Pulsar astronomy has immensely progressed since then, and pulsars display a phenomenology that requires much more advanced models (see the section Pulsar behavior). There is no single unified pulsar model that can explain all the variety of observations… nobody predicted that our Galaxy would host some pulsars with pulsations rivaling atomic clocks in stability, or that their distribution would make them useful for an out-of-the-spiral galactic navigation system.
It’s a system we’ve begun to explore because of the need for autonomous navigation, in which a spacecraft is capable of navigating without recourse to resources on Earth or in nearby space. Homing in on millisecond pulsars (MSPs) as a unique subset of the broader population of pulsars, Vidal asks what observable predictions we might make that could help us distinguish natural phenomena from artificial. Galactic distribution turns out to be one such marker.
The distribution of MSPs is isotropic, while normal pulsars appear to be concentrated in the galactic plane. Because they are formed in binary systems, this distribution of MSPs causes us to ask why there would be more binary star systems outside the galactic disk than in it.
Image: Figure 7 from the Vidal paper. Caption: The distribution of MSPs in Galactic coordinates, excluding those in globular clusters. Binary MSPs are shown by open circles. From Lyne & Graham-Smith (2012, 116). Credit: Clément Vidal.
Bear in mind that while pulsar navigation became an early topic, proposed as far back as 1974 by JPL’s George Downs, it was the proposal to use X-ray pulsars instead of radio pulsars (Chester and Butman, 1981) that demonstrated both improved accuracy and the ability to use the kind of small detectors that would be feasible for inclusion in a spacecraft payload.
The discovery of X-ray millisecond pulsars shortly thereafter illustrated the difference between ‘normal’ pulsars and MSPs (for more on this, see Duncan Lorimer’s “Binary and Millisecond Pulsars,” Living Reviews in Relativity December 2008, 11:8; abstract here). Although there is much to say about this issue, for now keep in mind the key difference noted above: MSPs accrete matter from a companion. They are generally found in binary systems.
Now we enter the realm of prediction. If there is a case to be made for MSPs as evidence of engineering, we would expect them to be distributed in ways that would appear non-random. We would expect few redundancies in their coverage areas, and in terms of their numbers, there should be enough for galactic navigation but not necessarily more. Moreover, we would expect artificial navigation sources like X-ray millisecond pulsars to beam preferentially in the galactic plane. If we do not find these things, the astrophysical model is supported.
What emerges in this paper is a series of such predictions that can be used to examine our growing data about pulsar, and in particular MSP, behavior. The data offer a rich enough hunting ground that we can look at such things as MSPs in globular clusters as opposed to elsewhere in the galaxy. We find that about half of MSPs appear in globular clusters, a fact that supports an astrophysical explanation, since stellar encounters are likely in such quarters and thus the formation of the binary star systems that produce MSPs in the first place is to be expected.
If MSPs are engineered objects, we would expect different properties between cluster MSPs and those in the disk. We should examine such questions as beaming direction, which an astrophysical explanation would find to be random. We would study as well whether pulsar beaming overlaps with other pulsar beaming within such clusters. Such a study under the SETI-XNAV rubric might help us uncover new binary MSPs, Vidal asserts, by modeling the coverage areas of MSPs and searching in places where coverage would be non-existent. The prediction would then be that we should find an MSP filling in the putative coverage gap.
Vidal’s paper offers numerous areas for such investigation. SETI-XNAV, he writes:
…draws on pulsar astronomy, as well as navigation and positioning science to make SETI predictions. This concrete project is grounded in a universal problem and needs: navigation. Decades of pulsar empirical data is available and I have proposed nine lines of inquiry to begin the endeavor… These include predictions regarding the spatial and power distribution of pulsars in the galaxy; their population; their evolutionary tracks; possible synchronization between pulsars; testing the navigability near the speed of light; decoding galactic coordinates; testing various directed panspermia hypotheses; as well as decoding metadata or more information in pulsar’s pulses.
My interest is in seeing how Vidal makes the distinction between astrophysical and astrobiological — in other words, as with KIC 8462852 and the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, are we making progress as we begin to investigate under what some have called the ‘Dysonian’ SETI paradigm? That approach takes its name from the postulated Dyson spheres that have been the subject of early work and continue to be studied through projects like the Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies (G-HAT) program at Penn State (see Jason Wright’s Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies for more). These issues will grow in relevance as our observational tools hasten the pace of discovery.
More thoughts on all this in my next post. The paper is Vidal, “Pulsar positioning system: a quest for evidence of extraterrestrial engineering,” published online in the International Journal of Astrobiology 23 November 2017 (abstract / preprint). Also of interest: Chennamangalam, Siemion, Lorimer & Werthimer, “Jumping the energetics queue: Modulation of pulsar signals by extraterrestrial civilizations,” New Astronomy Volume 34, January 2015, pp. 245-249 (abstract).