loading page

Millisecond Pulsars as Standards: Timing, Positioning and Communication
  • Clément Vidal
Clément Vidal
Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

Author Profile


Millisecond Pulsars (MSPs) are likely to be or to become a timing, navigation, and metadata communication standard across the galaxy. Regarding timing, they provide a parallel clock to terrestrial ones, are based on macroscopic neutron stars behavior instead of quantum processes, and they will remain ticking longer than any clock we can construct on Earth. Regarding navigation, X-ray MSPs provide all the necessary ingredients for a Pulsar Positioning System that has many similarities with GPS. In astronautics, X-ray pulsar-based navigation (XNAV) uses a time-of-arrival navigation method comparable to GPS, accurate down to about 100 meters. Regarding metadata communication, MSPs would be a natural metadata coding choice for any galactic communication effort. On Earth, any letter or email contains metadata information about where it comes from, where it goes, and when it was written. We can expect that similar conventions exist for any potential galactic communication. Most messages are likely to be galacto-tagged and pulsar-time-stamped by reference to MSPs. This simple remark opens a simplified SETI search. Given any suspicious message we want to decode, the first step becomes to attempt to decode not the message itself, but its metadata (Vidal 2017). GPS is a technological breakthrough that enables many others: one needs only to think about all the location-based services (LBS) that it has unlocked in our modern societies. The realm of potential galactic LBS is an area totally unexplored, and may well be a key to find technosignatures of many kinds. Is GPS a technology? The answer is an obvious yes. Now imagine that we would find around an exoplanet’s orbit well-distributed timekeeping devices with an accuracy comparable with atomic clocks, beaming timing information that can be used as a positioning system, just like GPS. Would not we be compelled to check if it is a technosignature? This is exactly the current situation with MSPs, but on a galactic scale. This is why I have proposed ways to test whether the pulsar positioning system is actually an instance of galactic engineering (Vidal 2019). Seeking such a galactic technosignature proof is actually searching for a distributed signal, instead of searching for a localized signal around one particular star or planet. If the search program succeeds, it would lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, through their engineered timing and navigation system. References: Vidal, C. 2017. “Millisecond Pulsars as Standards: Timing, Positioning and Communication.” Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 13 (S337): 418–19. doi:10.1017/S1743921317008596. https://arxiv.org/abs/1711.06036. (where this poster was first presented) Vidal, C. 2019. “Pulsar Positioning System: A Quest for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Engineering.” International Journal of Astrobiology 18 (3): 213–34. doi:10.1017/S147355041700043X. https://arxiv.org/abs/1704.03316.
Sep 2017Published in Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union volume 13 issue S337 on pages 418-419. 10.1017/S1743921317008596