An active optical sensor probes a region of free space that is engulfed in bright thermal noise to determine the presence (or absence) of a weakly reflecting target. The returned light (which is just thermal noise if no target is present, and thermal noise plus a weak reflection of the probe beam if a target is present) is measured and processed by a receiver and a decision is made on whether a target is present.

It has been shown that generating an entangled pair of photons (which is a highly non classical state of light),using one photon as the probe beam and storing the other photon for comparison to the returned light, has superior performance to the traditional classical-light (coherent-state) target detection sensors. An entangled-photon transmitter and optimal receiver combination can yield up to a factor of 4 (i.e., 6 dB) gain in the error-probability exponent over a coherent state transmitter and optimal receiver combination, in a highly lossy and noisy scenario (when both sensors have the same number of transmitted photons). However, the receiver that achieves this advantage is not known. One structured receiver can close half of the 6-dB gap (i.e., a 3-dB improvement). It is based on phase-conjugating the returned light, then performing dual-balanced difference detection with the stored half of the entangled-photon pair.

Active optical sensors are of tremendous value to NASA’s missions. Although this work focuses on target detection, it can be extended to imaging (2D, 3D, hyperspectral, etc.) scenarios as well, where the image quality can be better than that offered by traditional active sensors. Although the current work is theoretical, NASA’s future missions could benefit significantly from developing and demonstrating this capability.

This is an optical receiver design whose components are, in principle, all implementable. However, the work is currently entirely theoretical. It is necessary to:

  1. Demonstrate a bench-top proof of the theoretical principle,
  2. Create an operational prototype off-the-bench, and
  3. Build a practical sensor that can fly in a mission.

This work was done by Baris I. Erkmen of Caltech and Saikat Guha of BBN Technologies for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. NPO-47152

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2010 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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