How do you navigate when you're floating out in deep space? By pulsar, that's how. In outer space (and even in Earth orbit) GPS doesn't do you a whole lot of good, so space scientists at the PLANS navigation conference in Monterey, CA this week have put together a couple of papers designed to show that a spacecraft could navigate autonomously by triangulating off the X-ray light emitted from pulsars scattered throughout the universe. The new system promises to be for space what GPS is for Earth; pretty useful when your stranded out past Saturn wondering "maybe that should have been a right at Titan..."
Of course if it has a military application, you know DARPA thought of it first. Back in 2005 the feds funded research into 'XNAV', as they like to call it, to see if it could be used as a backup to GPS in case that system got jammed or went down during a time of war (do these guys ever think about anything other than war?).
But space scientists at PLANS think XNAV is the primary way for future spacecraft to navigate the stars. Using the system, robot spaceships could make their way safely and accurately through interstellar space without human intervention. It might pave the way for ultra-long missions to nearby stars and planets, while the human cargo snores peacefully away in hypersleep.
Source: PLANS conference website