An improved method of calibration has been devised for instruments that utilize tunable lasers to measure the absorption spectra of atmospheric gases in order to determine the relative abundances of the gases. In this method, CO2 in the atmosphere is used as a natural calibration standard. Unlike in one prior calibration method, it is not necessary to perform calibration measurements in advance of use of the instrument and to risk deterioration of accuracy with time during use. Unlike in another prior calibration method, it is not necessary to include a calibration gas standard (and the attendant additional hardware) in the instrument and to interrupt the acquisition of atmospheric data to perform calibration measurements.

In the operation of an instrument of this type, the beam from a tunable diode laser or a tunable quantum-cascade laser is directed along a path through the atmosphere, the laser is made to scan in wavelength over an infrared spectral region that contains one or two absorption spectral lines of a gas of interest, and the transmission (and, thereby, the absorption) of the beam is measured. The concentration of the gas of interest can then be calculated from the observed depth of the absorption line(s), given the temperature, pressure, and path length.

Figure 1. These Simulated Spectral Transmission Measurements illustrate the present method as applied to a wave-number range that contains absorption lines of N2O and CO2.

CO2is nearly ideal as a natural calibration gas for the following reasons: CO2 has numerous rotation/vibration infrared spectral lines, many of which are near absorption lines of other gases. The concentration of CO2 relative to the concentrations of the major constituents of the atmosphere is well known and varies slowly and by a small enough amount to be considered constant for calibration in the present context. Hence, absorption-spectral measurements of the concentrations of gases of interest can be normalized to the concentrations of CO2. Because at least one CO2 calibration line is present in every spectral scan of the laser during absorption measurements, the atmospheric CO2 serves continuously as a calibration standard for every measurement point.

Figure 1 depicts simulated spectral transmission measurements in a wave-number range that contains two absorption lines of N2O and one of CO2. The simulations were performed for two different upper-atmospheric pressures for an airborne instrument that has a path length of 80 m. The relative abundance of CO2 in air was assumed to be 360 parts per million by volume (approximately its natural level in terrestrial air). In applying the present method to measurements like these, one could average the signals from the two N2O absorption lines and normalize their magnitudes to that of the CO2 absorption line. Other gases wit which this calibration method can be used include H2O, CH4, CO, NO, NO2, HOCl, C2H2, NH3, O3, and HCN.

Figure 2. The Spectral Region Near 1.88 µm would be appropriate for measurements of water on both Mars and the Earth where suitable near-infrared laser devices would exist.

One can also take advantage of this method to eliminate an atmospheric-pressure gauge and thereby reduce the mass of the instrument: The atmospheric pressure can be calculated from the temperature, the known relative abundance of CO2, and the concentration of CO2 as measured by spectral absorption.

Natural CO2 levels on Mars provide an ideal calibration standard. Figure 2 shows a second example of the application of this method to Mars atmospheric gas measurements. For sticky gases like H2O, the method is particularly powerful, since water is notoriously difficult to handle at low concentrations in pre-flight calibration procedures.

This work was done by Chris Webster of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.