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back to article Pulsars: the GPS beacons of the cosmos

Want to navigate over huge distances with nearly superhuman accuracy? All you need is a laptop, the right software, and some way to keep track of the signals of distant pulsars. What began as an attempt to improve the search for gravitational waves has had the unexpected secondary outcome of demonstrating that pulsars could just …

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See: the Lensman series, by E.E "Doc" Smith, from 1948.

Bad pulp fiction, but a few original ideas. I enjoyed reading it when I was in my early teens. Today, as a Grandfather? Maybe not so much ... But my nieces & nephews are having fun :-)

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Happy

Re: See: the Lensman series, by E.E "Doc" Smith, from 1948.

First read the series back in 1960s. Found them tucked away in a box a decade ago and read them again.

I still enjoyed them.

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Maybe Crewman Daniels was shot backwards in time again?

Section 31, aka the NSA in current/old Earth 2013, will be setting temporal sslapp/sstymyy/zzapp coordinates for XP Deng. If he gets too close to threatening the Temporal Commission, XP will be "x'd" out, and his zeal in name Deng will be rewarded with a resounding (pulsars warbles and stellar nursery dazzling flashes) dong.

Kudos for the discovery, but don't let Admiral/Crewman Braxton come after you! He almost eradicated Janeway, were it not for some help by 7 of mine, umm, 9.

Seriously, thought, imagine if his/their discovery leads to finding a wormhole or "subspace eddy" or or other equivalent in the STreknobabble. It might do wonders for humanity if funding is directed to feeding probes of various sizes and signal strength into to find our where it ends up, or how many places they end up. Imagine the sudden surge of human focus, redirection away from other Terran issues. Why, with wormholes we could cover vast distances...

(SLAPPPPPPP)

Ah, shit, wait, i was forced to awaken from the dream of a lifetime. WTF, do I see Talosians and their jelanium veins throbbing?

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Re: Maybe Crewman Daniels was shot backwards in time again?

I had to double-check this was not amanfrommars1.

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Re: Maybe Crewman Daniels was shot backwards in time again?

Funny you should mention Star Trek, in 1980 there was a "Star Trek Maps" set published which included a navigation booklet. This discussed using pulsars and quasars as triangulation beacons for navigation, quasars becourse these were so far away that they would appear "fixed" on the sky compared to pulsars which are nearer and so would have a detectable proper motion. The manual even gave the equations you could use to plot your position in space!

My set are nicely tucked away in an envelope in my attic 8-)

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Anonymous Coward

TEMP02?

I don't think TEMPO2 is a good name for a software project. It is very easy for 'O' to be read as '0'.

Some confusion may arise, resulting in unfortunate consequences.

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Holmes

Re: TEMP02?

Folding space to jump right into the center of a planet... or phase shifting into an asteroid. These problems have been predicted, and will be "corrected" by our time police...

(Holmes, for more fictional references, but alas, not space)

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Alien

Long distance calling not included.

When can I expect this to be an included feature on my smartphone?

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Go

Re: Long distance calling not included.

It just requires a quick adjustment with a sonic screwdriver.

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And so, to the stars...

"The time had come. We were gathered on the hill, shivering in the cold, but beside ourselves with excitement. And then it happened. There was a dull roar and a shaking of the ground. The first ship rose up into the dark and starry sky, in a deafening din, trailing a plume of fire. It was a magnificent machine, the outcome of years of invention and engineering. Now the universe would have to take note, for mankind had laid a wager. We were bidding to fulfil our destiny. This slither of silver cutting its way across the void, was our greatest gambit. The first affirmation of our presence. Of our coming of age."

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Re: And so, to the stars...

that sounds vaguely familiar, as if from a classic novel. From whence cometh such a quote?

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GBE

Re: And so, to the stars...

If that's not the title of a book, it sure ought to be.

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Re: And so, to the stars...

Off the cuff, straight from the cowshed!

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Re: And so, to the stars...

I can continue the story by popular request.

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Go

Re: And so, to the stars...

Please continue!

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Re: And so, to the stars...

The time had come. We were gathered on the hill, shivering in the cold, but beside ourselves with excitement. And then it happened. There was a dull roar and a shaking of the ground. The first ship rose up into the dark and starry sky, in a deafening din, trailing a plume of fire. It was a magnificent machine, the outcome of years of invention and engineering. Now the universe would have to take note, for mankind had laid a wager. We were bidding to fulfil our destiny. This slither of silver cutting its way across the void, was our greatest gambit. The first affirmation of our presence. Of our coming of age.

We stayed up for hours after it had vanished into the blackness of space, gazing up at this new frontier that we somehow knew had now been breached and would forever be a part of us. Then we walked back to the warmth of our homes, pondering the momentous event we had just witnessed.

As those it left behind slept in the cosy fastness of their homes, the ship hurtled across the void, its Varyan shields deflecting anything that might obstruct its path and would otherwise spell its doom. The great streaks of fire that spewed out of the engines had by now abated and in their place came an eerie bluish haze, a device designed to accelerate the ship to unimaginable speeds without any perceptible sound or vibration. It looked and felt as though it were suspended motionless in the vast infinity of space – though in reality it was moving at immense velocity.

It was while conducting research into innovative ways of shielding spaceships travelling between the planets of the solar system, that the Space Foundation’s scientists had discovered that the shields they had developed had an unexpected side-effect. Because of the way in which they bent the fabric of space and time around the ship, in order to deflect the deadly solar radiation and the infinitely rare but dreaded space rocks, they enabled a spaceship to accelerate to speeds far in excess of what had been thought possible under conventional relativistic physics. The Ruycliffe effect, named after the late 22nd century mathematician who had first developed a model that could describe it, would set up a network of distortion streams between the vessel and nearby artefacts and deformations in the space-time continuum, which in turn formed a channel that bypassed conventional space-time. The result was a gradual and paradoxical lessening of the effects of mass as the vessel’s speed increased, thereby negating what had always been one of the most fundamental barriers to interstellar travel. A ship travelling within such shielding could thus not only journey immune from all known external hazards. It could also accelerate without limitation, and the more it accelerated, the more the impact of the acceleration grew, meaning that its speed would increase exponentially over time. To decelerate, the shields would merely have to be powered down, gradually – very gradually and very carefully.

A series of probes had been sent out, as the engineers gradually adapted the technology to the unknown scope of this new effect. The first dozen or so had exploded in mid-flight; many more were lost when all contact with them was broken off, on account of having reached speeds and distances at which any control was impossible. However, over the years, the designs had been refined to the point where probes could be sent out, accelerated to speeds beyond that of light, and returned to Earth intact – though of course they could not be monitored or controlled during that part of their journey when they were being accelerated to extreme velocities. Finally, after extensive tests, a decision had been taken to send out a manned mission. And this was it.

Onboard the ship was a crew of three picked men, the best and most experienced astronauts from the Space Academy. There was Linden, tall and muscular, an icy Nordic god, ever dependable, if slightly ponderous at times. Rante, a fiery southerner, easily crossed and quickly brought to the boil, but single-minded and dedicated to the task at hand. And Shand, the captain, who appeared forever lost in thought, mysterious and unfathomable.

They did not pilot the ship – such a task would have been beyond their powers. The ship was controlled by banks of concealed computers which handled all its vital functions without as much as a single whisper or flashing indicator. Neither did the crew know their final destination. They had not been told it.

At the Mission Control Centre, in the main control room, buried deep in the bowels of an enormous reinforced concrete building bristling with antennas, legions of stern men and women pored over huge screens, watching a white cross move in a slow but deliberate way across fields of complex symbols and lines. That was the ship, making its way past the markers that science had chosen to track its progress through the universe.

First came the moon, and the sphere extrapolated from its orbit around the Earth. Then that derived from the asteroid belt. Then Mars, which had taken its toll over the years in failed expeditions to settle the planet. Then the outer planets, the gas giants that could harbour no life and had been left unexplored, save as a source of raw materials.

Several hours had passed, and the cross on the huge screens was nearing the very limits of the control centre’s ability to track it. By now it was travelling at several hundred million miles per hour. Any direct contact was impossible. The only record of the ship’s existence was provided by the beacons and detectors that had been stationed for that purpose along the path plotted for the vessel.

Then the cross vanished off screen, as the Control Centre’s computers struggled in vain to assemble any meaningful data to plot its position and path. Although this event had been anticipated, it drew gasps from those present in the hall, and the countless millions who were watching the proceedings over PlaNet from their homes.

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Re: And so, to the stars...

Thankyou :-)

p.s. you should trademark "PlaNet"

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Re: And so, to the stars...

Re. PlaNet: I could copyright it and then sue anyone who used that word in speech or in print; I could even force kids and teachers in school to pay me 10 cents each time they said the word, and make use of an NSA commercial service now being trialled and soon to be known as "Universal Copyright Enforcement Service" to know exactly who had said it and when. I would make billions!

I am continuing with this story and will post another instalment soon, but work is slowing me down. If the comments for this article are closed, I will put it on www.graziella-greenwich.net/and so, to the stars

Thanks for your interest!

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an exploding galaxy for example

I would like to see that. Structures 100'000 ly in diameter don't explode. Maybe we are talking about merging black holes?

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Black holes cannot explode. Merging black holes do not explode either - they just suck harder.

I agree that galaxies cannot explode in the Cameron sense - however if you have ever seen those simulations of a galaxy going through another one, well let's just say that your statement can be found incorrect for certain values of explode.

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Black holes don't suck.

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Mushroom

"Structures 100'000 ly in diameter don't explode."

They do in a Michael Bay movie.

This comment also exploded--------------------------------->

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Joke

"Black holes don't suck" But, they WILL

Blow you away with the awesome highly-localized compression and dialating crushingness.

OTHO, black holes could turn out to be all touchy-feely, as in Multi-Endpoint Anuses of the Uniwerse Cosmically Upending Leading Physicists Assumptions (MEAU CULPA), hahahha...

In THAT case, this WOULD be one "Fantastic Voyage" (in terms of the movie AND the song, jingling on a journey from one ass-end off the uniewers to the other. Iff that's so, then EVERYwhere in the uniwerse can be be equi-distributed ass-ends of the uniwerse, no better, no worse tan anyplace in the uniworse...

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"Black holes don't suck"

Black holes suck big time, dude, if you're driving your space ship and one of them gets hold of you and won't let you achieve warp speed or whatever.

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Pint

Re: "Black holes don't suck"

You're in a black hole, the Universe.

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Re: "Black holes don't suck"

> You're in a black hole, the Universe.

Only from the POV of people outside the observable universe, and frankly, screw those guys.

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Boffin

Known and used (differently) in Pioneering days

The Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes (1972 and 1973) each had a plaque indicating the position of earth relative to 14 pulsars, s the principle is well known

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Re: Known and used (differently) in Pioneering days

When the first pulsar was discovered, it was initially thought that it might be a signal beacon for space-traveling extraterrestrials.

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Missing something?

I might have to read the Arxiv article but from the Reg article it's not clear how this Galactic Positioning System would work once you move quite a ways out of the solar system.

IIUC, Pulsars are not omni-directions, in that they have quite narrow beams out of their poles. Move "aside" a bit and you are no longer swept by the beams, making the pulsar effectively invisible.

Other would "appear", of course, as you move around space, but how would map them into an all-encompassing galactic navigation chart?

This may be just general knowledge for those familiar with mapping techniques, which I'm sadly not.

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Re: Missing something?

Nice. point. I'll remember that if I reference it in any fiction. We need mapmakers and starmaps!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Missing something?

Maybe start by locating intersecting beams? Then you have a point of reference from one pulsar to another.

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Re: Missing something?

Pretty much the same way you do with GPS satellites. The difference is that the pulsars are stationary (more or less) and you are moving. As long as you have more than enough, you can lose a few and when you gain a new one, you place that one into your already established system of references. You would get a little drift over distance unlike GPS where the satellites already know where they are, but that drift will not be more than a meter for each complete new set of pulsars. With time of course when we have sent more ships* out there they will share data and you will get a near perfect navigational starmap.

*WHEN not IF!

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Pint

Re: Missing something?

Don't cross the beams. - Ghost Busters

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The idea of using pulsars for spacecraft nav has been around for a few years as well.

But I suspect that it has taken this long for someone to work the unknowns to get a viable system out of it.

Thumbs up for that.

But remember the state of the art for spacecraft computers is about a 200Mhz POWER or SPARC processor., which is rather below what an Apple laptop can manage.

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Re: The idea of using pulsars for spacecraft nav has been around for a few years as well.

"But remember the state of the art for spacecraft computers is about a 200Mhz POWER or SPARC processor., which is rather below what an Apple laptop can manage."

I suspect that me with my 25 year old 33Mhz 386SX+mathco, 8meg RAM can do more than almost all of all of Apple's current offerings in the hands of the current luser-base.

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Re: The idea of using pulsars for spacecraft nav has been around for a few years as well.

But remember the state of the art for spacecraft computers is about a 200Mhz POWER or SPARC processor., which is rather below what an Apple laptop can manage.

On the other hand, the original academic developers of the code have probably not really optimized its performance. Give the algorithm to a few good hackers and ask them to make it fast, and you will probably find the spacecraft hardware is quite sufficient.

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@ MacroRodent (was: Re: The idea of using pulsars for spacecraft ::snippage::)

"On the other hand, the original academic developers of the code have probably not really optimized its performance."

You've never actually worked on spacecraft software/firmware, have you?

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Re: @ MacroRodent (was: The idea of using pulsars for spacecraft ::snippage::)

@Jake,

I suspect that they've not worked on any embedded system like that at all.

The following may be of interest. The Lockheed A12 and SR71 did navigation by star tracking. They had a little telescope system on the top, they could sight for particular stars and work out their terrestrial position that way. Kind of like an automation of navigation by sextant. That was all done with 1960s era computing. It follows that that's all that is needed for this sort of problem. A modern day 200MHz rad hardened PowerPC is massive overkill for this sort of navigational problem.

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@Jake re MacroRodent

"You've never actually worked on spacecraft software/firmware, have you?"

Neither have you. And MacroRodent's point was the the original ACADEMIC developers of the code hadn't optimised it - and he's almost certainly quite right. If it were optimised for space use it might be quite a lot more efficient.

As usual, in your attempt to be scathing and witty you manage once again to miss the point.

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Re: @ MacroRodent (was: The idea of using pulsars for spacecraft ::snippage::)

Exactly.

Long-range spacecraft had different issues ... SR71 is close, but is manually operated.

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Re: @Jake re MacroRodent

"Neither have you."

OK. If you say so.

"the original ACADEMIC developers of the code hadn't optimised it "

Uh ... you are very, very wrong. We worked hard to optimize it. I think we did a pretty good job.

"As usual, in your attempt to be scathing and witty you manage once again to miss the point."

As usual, in your attempt to be "knowing", you fail to listen to your elders. Grow up.

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@jake

>>I suspect that me with my 25 year old 33Mhz 386SX+mathco, 8meg RAM can do more than almost all of all of Apple's current offerings in the hands of the current luser-base.

I agree, but don't you mean DX rather than SX.

I had a tower with the same chips and a huge fat SCSI drive (300MB IIRC)

A great machine.

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Re: @jake

"don't you mean DX rather than SX."

No. I mean SX+mathco.

Mine has a pair of 200Meg Maxtor drives. She still runs quite nicely.

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Re: @jake

Wasn't an SX with a maths coprocessor the same thing as a DX?

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Re: @ MacroRodent (was: The idea of using pulsars for spacecraft ::snippage::)

You've never actually worked on spacecraft software/firmware, have you?

No, but I was not aware the article was talking about software already prepared for spacecraft. In my experience from other fields, most code done for academic papers is more like proof of concept (getting it to work at all more important that making it fast), not something you can deploy for production use. Apologies if the assumption was wrong.

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@Thesheep (was: Re: @jake)

No. The DX had a mathco on-board, operating at silicon speed. The SX+mathco was two different chips communicating across the motherboard, somewhat slower. Seat of the pants? No difference. Price? Probably $250 cheaper for the SX+mathco in 1988ish.

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Emo

Re: @Thesheep (was: @jake)

It was only the 486DX onwards where the math co-pro was incorporated into the chip. 486SX no math co-pro.

386SX was a 32bit chip with a 16bit data bus - no math co-pro on board.

386DX was a 32bit chip with a 32bit data bus - no math co-pro on board.

387 Math co-pro's were separate chips.

The math co-pro was quite a bit dearer than the cpu back in the day.

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@Emo (was: Re: @Thesheep (was: @jake))

::heh:: You are quite correct. Mea culpa. Brain fart on my part.

The old 386sx+mathco is still quite functional for day-to-day work, regardless :-)

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386DX...

...my 25MHz one did sterling effort using MathCAD to calculate our iterative thermal comfort calculations based on Fenger's work - 387 co-pro kept each change in the data down to less than a minute to recalculate, and there were IIRC 4 or 5 variables changed per page. Roughly the same time as the dept 486SX-33, again IIRC. Good machine.

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Re: @Thesheep (was: @jake)

Wow! You're taking me back to 1992, when I bought my first computer:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intel_80486DX2

Which had a 486dx2 66, a Spyder/Spider graphics card, tower casee, other stuff, and cost me about $1990. Back when home computers were FINANCED. Thanks for the memory lane trip/voyage!

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