NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft in interstellar space. Credit: NASA

How can we Achieve Autonomous Navigation in Deep Space?

How can our spacecraft autonomously navigate in deep space?


As spacecraft journey deeper into the mysteries of the universe, tracking their location becomes an increasingly daunting task. Historically, the responsibility has fallen on the vigilant eyes of NASA’s Deep Space Network, a world-class communication hub linking us with interplanetary explorers. However, as our cosmic curiosity scales up, the old system stands on shaky ground. Tapping into Visual Systems

Under the guidance of Eleonora Andreis, a team of scientists from Politecnico di Milano is employing a technique that would resonate with anyone familiar with autonomous cars on Earth. Centered on visual systems, this innovation harnesses sophisticated cameras to capture surrounding light sources. And these aren’t just any lights – they’re wandering planets. By juxtaposing the position of these celestial bodies with precise timing metrics, the system can pinpoint the probe’s locale within the solar system.

“Instead of relying on landscapes, these visual systems focus on particular light sources – planets. This revolutionary approach can be executed with minimal computing prowess, offering the potential for onboard automation,” Andreis mentioned in her statement.

The Underpinnings of the Method

However, utilizing planets as navigational markers isn’t a straightforward affair. While capturing their image is the inaugural step, discerning the planets and ascertaining their navigational relevance is paramount. With this data, the probe can then determine trajectories and velocities, leveraging a top-notch orbital mechanics algorithm.


Post these calculations, it’s imperative for the probe to recalibrate its route, maintaining alignment with its designated path. Minor anomalies in thrust execution could dramatically alter the probe’s final destination.

Pilot Trials: Earth to Mars

To test the reliability of this innovative system, the team simulated a voyage from Earth to Mars. Relying solely on their visual-based navigation approach, the probe was able to deduce its position within a margin of 2,000 km and its velocity within 0.5 km/s after traveling approximately 225 million kilometers.

“Having an algorithm is just a fraction of the journey. Transforming it into a tangible, operational feature on a Cubesat is where the real challenge lies,” emphasized Andreis.


The research’s foundation stems from the European Research Council’s funding initiative, presenting the possibility for further financial backing. For now, the trajectory of this algorithm remains an enigma, but one can only hope it finds its place in the universe—or allows us to find ours.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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