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NASA Mars mission tech to help improve maritime navigation

17 June 2020

A UK research project that aims to use Quantum technology to improve the precision of maritime navigation, has been awarded a £600,000 grant.

The UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, led by the University of Birmingham, plans to use a sensor instrument based on the MEMS seismometers used on the NASA Insight mission, which is currently on the surface of Mars studying 'Marsquakes'.

Professor Tom Pike, who is co-leading the project with Dr Simon Calcutt of the University of Oxford, developed the seismometers for NASA. He said: 'This grant will help us transfer the technology we developed for Mars back to Earth, or more specifically onto our oceans. We know we have the robustness to survive a trip to another planet. Now we want to show we have the sensitivity to detect gravitational changes while rocking on a ship. It's more of a challenge than detecting marsquakes!'

Mars InSight Lander seisometer covered by a wind shield. Image: Wikimedia Commons, JPL, NASA

The new technology will allow navigation that not only relies on satellite signals but is able to measure the localised gravity field produced by underground conditions which can be matched to gravity maps to establish a vessel's precise location.

Hub academics are already working closely with industry partners, such as Network Rail and the Lighthouse Authority, to implement map matching navigation in the maritime and rail sectors.

Creating an instrument which can detect a gravity signal deployed at sea is an incredible challenge.

Receiving stable and accurate location data whilst at sea is vital, and this has not yet been achieved due to satellite vulnerabilities.

This crucial need was underlined in the Maritime 2050 report, compiled by the UK Government's Department of Transport in 2019, which said: 'A key problem which must be addressed in navigation safety terms is the overwhelming reliance on Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) with its inherent vulnerabilities to man-made interference and space weather. There are numerous examples of accidents and incidents associated with navigation error.'


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