Mercury discharge lamps are critical in many trapped ion frequency standard applications. An integrity monitoring system can be implemented using end-of-life signatures observed in operational mercury discharge lamps, making it possible to forecast imminent failure and to take action to mitigate the consequences (such as switching to a redundant system). Mercury lamps are used as a source of 194-nm ultraviolet radiation for optical pumping and state selection of mercury trapped ion frequency standards. Lamps are typically fabricated using 202Hg distilled into high-purity quartz, or other 194-nm transmitting material (e.g., sapphire). A buffer gas is also placed into the bulb, typically a noble gas such as argon, neon, or krypton.
The bulbs are driven by strong RF fields oscillating at ≈200 MHz. The lamp output may age over time by two internal mechanisms: (1) the darkening of the bulb that attenuates light transmission and (2) the loss of mercury due to migration or chemical interactions with the bulb surface. During fabrication, excess mercury is placed into a bulb, so that the loss rate is compensated with new mercury emanating from a cool tip or adjacent reservoir. The light output is nearly constant or varies slightly at a constant rate for many months/years until the mercury source is depleted. At this point, the vapor pressure abruptly falls and the total light output and atomic clock SNR (signal-to-noise ratio) decrease. After several days to weeks, the light levels decrease to a point where the atomic clock SNR is no longer sufficient to stay in lock, or the lamp self-extinguishes.
This signature has been observed in four separate end-of-life lamp failures while operating in the Deep Space Network (DSN). A simple integrator circuit can observe and document steady-state lamp behavior. When the light levels drop over a predetermined time interval by a specified amount (e.g., 20 percent), an alarm is set. For critical operational applications, such as the DSN or in space flight, this warning provides notice that a failure may be imminent, and for operators or control algorithm to take action.