An innovation reported in “Two-Camera Acquisition and Tracking of a Flying Target,” NASA Tech Briefs, Vol. 32, No. 8 (August 2008), p. 20, used a commercial fish-eye lens and an electronic imaging camera for initially locating objects with subsequent handover to an actuated narrow-field camera. But this operated against a dark-sky background. An improved solution involves an optical design based on custom optical components for the wide-field optical system that directly addresses the key limitations in acquiring a laser signal from a moving source such as an aircraft or a spacecraft.

(a) The custom optical design and ray-trace of the Wide-Field Optical Assembly; and (b) a Conceptual Optomechanical Design for holding the optical components and providing interface to the focal plane array (FPA). The collected light is substantially collimated prior to being passed through the spectral filter.

The first challenge was to increase the light collection entrance aperture diameter, which was approximately 1 mm in the first prototype. The new design presented here increases this entrance aperture diameter to 4.2 mm, which is equivalent to a more than 16 times larger collection area. One of the trades made in realizing this improvement was to restrict the field-of-view to +80° elevation and 360° azimuth. This trade stems from practical considerations where laser beam propagation over the excessively high air mass, which is in the line of sight (LOS) at low elevation angles, results in vulnerability to severe atmospheric turbulence and attenuation. An additional benefit of the new design is that the large entrance aperture is maintained even at large off-axis angles when the optic is pointed at zenith.

The second critical limitation for implementing spectral filtering in the design was tackled by collimating the light prior to focusing it onto the focal plane. This allows the placement of the narrow spectral filter in the collimated portion of the beam. For the narrow band spectral filter to function properly, it is necessary to adequately control the range of incident angles at which received light intercepts the filter. When this angle is restricted via collimation, narrower spectral filtering can be implemented. The collimated beam (and the filter) must be relatively large to reduce the incident angle down to only a few degrees. In the presented embodiment, the filter diameter is more than ten times larger than the entrance aperture. Specifically, the filter has a clear aperture of about 51 mm.

The optical design is refractive, and is comprised of nine custom refractive elements and an interference filter. The restricted maximum angle through the narrow-band filter ensures the efficient use of a 2-nm noise equivalent bandwidth spectral width optical filter at low elevation angles (where the range is longest), at the expense of less efficiency for high elevations, which can be tolerated because the range at high elevation angles is shorter. The image circle is 12 mm in diameter, mapped to 80×360° of sky, centered on the zenith.

This work was done by Norman A. Page, Jeffrey R. Charles, and Abhijit Biswas of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) at under the Physical Sciences category. NPO-46945

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
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Wide-Field Optic for Autonomous Acquisition of Laser Link

(reference NPO-46945) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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