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NICER/SEXTANT Team Named Goddard Chief Technologist's Innovators of the Year

In a ceremony held December 1, 2011, Principal Investigator (PI) Dr. Keith Gendreau (NASA) and Deputy PI Dr. Zaven Arzoumanian (USRA), together with their team-members, were named this year's "Internal Research And Development Innovators of the Year." NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Chief Technologist, Peter Hughes, selected the NICER/SEXTANT team as exemplifying the best in R&D because of their advanced thinking and sustained efforts in developing innovative solutions for navigating in deep space using pulsars, transmitting data via X-rays, and gathering first-of-their-kind measurements to better understand the interior composition of neutron stars.

According to a statement released by NASA Goddard communications, Mr. Hughes said the NICER/SEXTANT concept "truly exemplifies crosscutting capabilities so important to NASA." Dr. Don Kniffen, Vice President for Science, USRA, agrees: "NICER is a wonderful example of how innovative technology developed for scientific observations can lead to important practical applications. USRA is pleased to be involved with NASA in this effort and offers its congratulations to the entire team."

The team led by astrophysicists Gendreau and Arzoumanian has proposed to fly a multi-purpose instrument, consisting of an array of 56 telescopes, on the International Space Station (ISS). Its science mission, the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER), would observe (in the X-ray band) the thermal, magnetic, and rotational traits of neutron stars. Dr. Arzoumanian explains, "we have no way of creating here on Earth anything resembling the ultra-dense matter within neutron stars. NICER would enable us to study matter at the threshold of its existence - any denser, and gravity overwhelms matter, causing it to implode to a black hole."

From the same platform, utilizing the same telescopes, the Station Experiment for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT) mission would detect X-ray photons from pulsars to demonstrate spacecraft navigation using these naturally-occurring cosmic beacons. Pulsars are a subgroup of neutron stars that rotate rapidly, emitting powerful beams of light from their magnetic poles that sweep around as the star spins, similar to a lighthouse. The resulting pulsations are highly reliable and are accessible from low Earth orbit to deep space. A pulsar-based navigation system would enable deep-space missions that would otherwise be impossible with Earth-based tracking systems such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) or even the Deep Space Network (DSN). The capabilities of all Earth-centered systems degrade the deeper one travels into the Solar System.

And finally, the same instrument could serve as a receiver for a first-ever demonstration of communication over X-rays in space. Goddard's Modulated X-ray Source (MXS), also developed by members of the NICER/SEXTANT team led by Dr. Gendreau, would encode digital bits for transmitting data via rapidly pulsed X-rays. In such an experiment, the MXS transmitter would fly on a separate spacecraft from the SEXTANT receiver on ISS. An X-ray-based communication system could ultimately transmit gigabytes of data per second using much less power than existing communications systems.

If NASA approves the NICER/SEXTANT instrument for construction, the payload would be launched to the ISS by the summer of 2016.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, has been in operation for 50 years -- chartered on May 1, 1959. The Goddard Space Flight Center is a major U.S. laboratory for developing and operating unmanned scientific spacecraft. During the past 50 years, Goddard has been at the forefront in exploration, in technological achievement, in space science, and in studying the Earth as a system.

Founded in 1969, USRA is an independent research corporation with competencies that span space, Earth, and life sciences related disciplines, which are closely aligned with the nation's science and national security agencies. As a non-profit corporation with 105 major research university members, USRA's scientific and technical staff collaborate with over 400 universities annually. This depth of reach into the research community provides a unique platform for advancing science and technology.