A diffractive optic element (DOE) can be used as a beam splitter to generate multiple laser beams from a single input laser beam. This technology has been recently used in LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument to generate five laser beams that measure the lunar topography from a 50-km nominal mapping orbit (see figure). An extension of this approach is to use a multiple-zone DOE to allow a laser altimeter instrument to operate over a wider range of distances. In particular, a multiple-zone DOE could be used for applications that require both mapping and landing on a planetary body. In this case, the laser altimeter operating range would need to extend from several hundred kilometers down to a few meters.

LOLA DOE: (a) Picture, (b) Far-field image, and (c) Image normalized cross-section.

The innovator was recently involved in an investigation how to modify the LOLA instrument for the OSIRIS asteroid mapping and sample return mission. One approach is to replace the DOE in the LOLA laser beam expander assembly with a multiple-zone DOE that would allow for the simultaneous illumination of the asteroid with mapping and landing laser beams. The proposed OSIRIS multiple-zone DOE would generate the same LOLA five-beam output pattern for high-altitude topographic mapping, but would simultaneously generate a wide divergence angle beam using a small portion of the total laser energy for the approach and landing portion of the mission. Only a few percent of the total laser energy is required for approach and landing operations as the return signal increases as the inverse square of the ranging height. A wide divergence beam could be implemented by making the center of the DOE a diffractive or refractive negative lens. The beam energy and beam divergence characteristics of a multiple-zone DOE could be easily tailored to meet the requirements of other missions that require laser ranging data. Current single-zone DOE lithographic manufacturing techniques could also be used to fabricate a multiple-zone DOE by masking the different DOE zones during the manufacturing process, and the same space-compatible DOE substrates (fused silica, sapphire) that are used on standard DOE’s could be used for multiple-zone DOE’s.

DOEs are an elegant and cost-effective optical design option for space-based laser altimeters that require multiple output laser beams. The use of multiple-zone DOEs would allow for the design and optimization of a laser altimeter instrument required to operate over a large range of target distances, such asthose designed to both map and land on a planetary body. In addition to space-based laser altimeters, this technology could find applications in military or commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that fly at an altitude of several kilometers and need to land. It is also conceivable that variations of this approach could be used in land-based applications such as collision avoidance and robotic control of cars, trains, and ships.

This work was done by Luis A. Ramos-Izquierdo of Goddard Space Flight Center. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Physical Sciences category. GSC-15620-1

Photonics Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the January, 2011 issue of Photonics Tech Briefs Magazine.

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