Optical systems consisting of a series of optical elements require alignment from the input end to the output end. The optical elements can be mirrors, lenses, sources, detectors, or other devices. Complex optical systems are often difficult to align from end-to-end because the alignment beam must be inserted at one end in order for the beam to traverse the entire optical path to the other end. The ends of the optical train may not be easily accessible to the alignment beam.

Typically, when a series of optical elements is to be aligned, an alignment laser beam is inserted into the optical path with a pick-off mirror at one end of the series of elements. But it may be impossible to insert the beam at an endpoint. It can be difficult to locate the pick-off mirror at the desired position because there is not enough space, there is no mounting surface, or the location is occupied by a source, detector, or other component. Alternatively, the laser beam might be inserted at an intermediate location (not at an end-point) and sent, first in one direction and then the other, to the opposite ends of the optical system for alignment. However, in this case, alignment must be performed in two directions and extra effort is required to co-align the two beams to make them parallel and coincident, i.e., to follow the same path as an end-to-end beam.

An optical device has been developed that accepts a laser beam as input and produces two co-aligned, but counter-propagating beams. In contrast to a conventional alignment laser placed at one end of the optical path, this invention can be placed at a convenient position within the optical train and aligned to send its two beams simultaneously along precisely opposite paths that, taken together, trace out exactly the same path as the conventional alignment laser. This invention allows the user the freedom to choose locations within the optical train for placement of the alignment beam. It is also self-aligned by design and requires almost no adjustment.

This work was done by Donald Jennings of Goddard Space Flight Center. GSC-16610-1