Interstellar travel has always interested scientists. Because of this, one physicist has invented a new concept of the plasma rocket, while others rely on space-time distortion to achieve superluminal velocity.
Granted, manned interstellar spaceflight isn’t for tomorrow, but we know that in the past decade two man-made probes have crossed the solar system’s limit known as the heliopause: Voyager 1 (2012) and Voyager 2 (2018)). More spaceships will certainly follow in the future.
The importance of a reliable navigation system
The main problem with traveling beyond the solar system is that ships see a different landscape than Earth. In other words, the stars’ positions and movements change. Given the vastness of the space, this can create huge problems.
All it takes is a minor navigational mistake to land in the wrong star system! The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes are controlled from Earth, and New Horizons is joining them.
A new navigation system for interstellar travel
Note that New Horizons is currently approximately 14 light hours from our planet. This means it takes 28 hours to send a signal and get feedback. This delay will increase as the probe moves away from its home world, so a system is needed that allows future interstellar spacecraft to navigate on their own.
Star map. Photo credit: Shutterstock / Shooarts
From this perspective, Coryn AL Bailer-Jones, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, imagined a navigation system for travel in interstellar space.
“The exploration of interstellar space requires autonomous navigation systems that do not depend on tracking from the earth,” explains Bailer-Jones in the introduction to his study. To do this, the astronomer relies on the effects of parallax and aberration while he relies on the Doppler effect. According to him, the spaceship coming out of the heliosphere should be able to find its orientation by measuring the angular distance between the stars and comparing it to the star maps we already have.
This method proposed by the astronomer at the Max Planck Institute therefore consists of a kind of adaptive triangulation in the course of the journey, which is based on the parallax and aberration of the stars in the region in which the vehicle is moving. Keep in mind that NASA is researching the possibility of using pulsars as a reference point during an interstellar journey.