A laser tracker (LT) is an important coordinate metrology tool that uses laser interferometry to determine precise distances to objects, points, or surfaces defined by an optical reference, such as a retroreflector. A retroreflector is a precision optic consisting of three orthogonal faces that returns an incident laser beam nearly exactly parallel to the incident beam. Commercial retroreflectors are designed for operation at room temperature and are specified by the divergence, or beam deviation, of the returning laser beam, usually a few arcseconds or less. When a retroreflector goes to extreme cold (≈35 K), however, it could be anticipated that the precision alignment between the three faces and the surface figure of each face would be compromised, resulting in wavefront errors and beam divergence, degrading the accuracy of the LT position determination.

Controlled tests must be done beforehand to determine survivability and these LT coordinate errors. Since conventional interferometer systems and laser trackers do not operate in vacuum or at cold temperatures, measurements must be done through a vacuum window, and care must be taken to ensure window-induced errors are negligible, or can be subtracted out. Retroreflector holders must be carefully designed to minimize thermally induced stresses. Changes in the path length and refractive index of the retroreflector have to be considered.

Cryogenic vacuum testing was done on commercial solid glass retroreflectors for use on cryogenic metrology tasks. The capabilities to measure wavefront errors, measure beam deviations, and acquire laser tracker coordinate data were demonstrated. Measurable but relatively small increases in beam deviation were shown, and further tests are planned to make an accurate determination of coordinate errors.

This work was done by Raymond G. Ohl and Bradley J. Frey of Goddard Space Flight Center, Joseph M. Stock of SGT, Inc., Joseph C. McMann of QinetiQ-North America, and Tmitri J. Zukowski of Research Support Instruments. For further information, contact the Goddard Innovative Partnerships Office at (301) 286-5810. GSC-15702-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

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

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