A common problem in optical detection is determining the arrival time of a weak optical pulse that may comprise only one to a few photons. Currently, this problem is solved by using a photodetector to convert the optical signal to an electronic signal. The timing of the electrical signal is used to infer the timing of the optical pulse, but error is introduced by random delay between the absorption of the optical pulse and the creation of the electrical one. To eliminate this error, a time-to-space converter separates a sequence of optical pulses and sends them to different photodetectors, depending on their arrival time.

The random delay, called jitter, is at least 20 picoseconds for the best detectors capable of detecting the weakest optical pulses, a single photon, and can be as great as 500 picoseconds. This limits the resolution with which the timing of the optical pulse can be measured.

The time-to-space converter overcomes this limitation. Generally, the time-to-space converter imparts a timedependent momentum shift to the incoming optical pulses, followed by an optical system that separates photons of different momenta. As an example, an electro-optic phase modulator can be used to apply longitudinal momentum changes (frequency changes) that vary in time, followed by an optical spectrometer (such as a diffraction grating), which separates photons with different momenta into different paths and directs them to impinge upon an array of photodetectors. The pulse arrival time is then inferred by measuring which photodetector receives the pulse.

The use of a time-to-space converter mitigates detector jitter and improves the resolution with which the timing of an optical pulse is determined. Also, the application of the converter enables the demodulation of a pulse position modulated signal (PPM) at higher bandwidths than using previous photodetector technology. This allows the creation of a receiver for a communication system with high bandwidth and high bits/photon efficiency.

This work was done by Kevin Birnbaum and William Farr of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-45799

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Electro-Optic Time-to-Space Converter for Optical Detector Jitter Mitigation

(reference NPO-45799) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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This article first appeared in the October, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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