Nulling interferometry is a technique for imaging exoplanets in which light from the parent star is suppressed using destructive interference. Light from the star is divided into two beams and a phase shift of π radians is introduced into one of the beams. When the beams are recombined, they destructively interfere to produce a deep null. For monochromatic light, this is implemented by introducing an optical path difference (OPD) between the two beams equal to λ/2, where λ is the wavelength of the light. For broadband light, however, a different phase shift will be introduced at each wavelength and the two beams will not effectively null when recombined.

Various techniques have been devised to introduce an achromatic phase shift — a phase shift that is uniform across a particular bandwidth. One popular technique is to use a series of dispersive elements to introduce a wavelengthdependent optical path in one or both of the arms of the interferometer. By intelligently choosing the number, material and thickness of a series of glass plates, a nearly uniform, arbitrary phase shift can be introduced between two arms of an interferometer.

There are several constraints that make choosing the number, type, and thickness of materials a difficult problem, such as the size of the bandwidth to be nulled. Several solutions have been found for bandwidths on the order of 20 to 30 percent (Δλ/λc) in the mid-infrared region. However, uniform phase shifts over a larger bandwidth in the visible regime between 480 to 960 nm (67 percent) remain difficult to obtain at the tolerances necessary for exoplanet detection.

A configuration of 10 dispersive glass plates was developed to be used as an achromatic phase shifter in nulling interferometry. Five glass plates were placed in each arm of the interferometer and an additional vacuum distance was also included in the second arm of the interferometer. This configuration creates a phase shift of π radians with an average error of 5.97 × 10–8 radians and standard deviation of 3.07 × 10–4 radians. To reduce ghost reflections and interference effects from neighboring elements, the glass plates are tilted such that the beam does not strike each plate at normal incidence. Reflections will therefore walk out of the system and not contribute to the intensity when the beams are recombined.

Tilting the glass plates, however, introduces several other problems that must be mitigated: (1) the polarization of a beam changes when refracted at an interface at non-normal incidence; (2) the beam experiences lateral chromatic spread as it traverses multiple glass plates; (3) at each surface, wavelength-dependent intensity losses will occur due to reflection. For a fixed angle of incidence, each of these effects must be balanced between each arm of the interferometer in order to ensure a deep null.

The solution was found using a nonlinear optimization routine that minimized an objective function relating phase shift, intensity difference, chromatic beam spread, and polarization difference to the desired parameters: glass plate material and thickness. In addition to providing a uniform, broadband phase shift, the configuration achieves an average difference in intensity transmission between the two arms of the interferometer of 0.016 percent with a standard deviation of 3.64 × 10–4 percent, an average difference in polarization between the two arms of the interferometer of 5.47 × 10–5 percent with a standard deviation of 1.57 × 10–6 percent, and an average chromatic beam shift between the two arms of the interferometer of –47.53 microns with a wavelength-by-wavelength spread of 0.389 microns.

This work was done by Matthew R. Bolcar and Richard G. Lyon of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-15830-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the May, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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