A scheme is proposed for referencing the propagation direction of the transmit laser signal in pointing a free-space optical communications terminal. This recently developed scheme enables the use of low-cost, commercial silicon-based sensors for tracking the direction of the transmit laser, regardless of the transmit wavelength. Compared with previous methods, the scheme offers some advantages of less mechanical and optical complexity and avoids expensive and exotic sensor technologies.

An Example Implementation is shown of the much simpler pointing reference scheme.
In free-space optical communications, the transmit beam must be accurately pointed toward the receiver in order to maintain the communication link. The current approaches to achieve this function call for part of the transmit beam to be split off and projected onto an optical sensor used to infer the pointed direction. This requires that the optical sensor be sensitive to the wavelength of the transmit laser. If a different transmit wavelength is desired, for example to obtain a source capable of higher data rates, this can become quite impractical because of the unavailability or inefficiency of sensors at these wavelengths. The innovation proposed here decouples this requirement by allowing any transmit wavelength to be used with any sensor.

We have applied this idea to a particular system that transmits at the standard telecommunication wavelength of 1,550 nm and uses a silicon-based sensor, sensitive from 0.5 to 1.0 micrometers, to determine the pointing direction. The scheme shown in the figure involves integrating a low-power 980-nm reference or boresight laser beam coupled to the 1,550-nm transmit beam via a wavelength-division-multiplexed fiber coupler. Both of these signals propagate through the optical fiber where they achieve an extremely high level of co-alignment before they are launched into the telescope. The telescope uses a dichroic beam splitter to reflect the 980-nm beam onto the silicon image sensor (a quad detector, charge-coupled device, or active-pixel-sensor array) while the 1,550-nm signal beam is transmitted through the optical assembly toward the remotely located receiver. Since the 980-nm reference signal originates from the same single-mode fiber-coupled source as the transmit signal, its position on the sensor is used to accurately determine the propagation direction of the transmit signal.

The optics are considerably simpler in the proposed scheme due to the use of a single aperture for transmitting and receiving. Moreover, the issue of mechanical misalignment does not arise because the reference signal and transmitted laser beams are inherently co-aligned. The beam quality of the 980-nm reference signal used for tracking is required to be circularly symmetric and stable at the tracking-plane sensor array in order to minimize error in the centroiding algorithm of the pointing system. However, since the transmit signal is delivered through a fiber that supports a single mode at 1,550 nm, propagation of higher order 980-nm modes is possible. Preliminary analysis shows that the overall mode profile is dominated by the fundamental mode, giving a near symmetric profile. The instability of the mode was also measured and found to be negligible in comparison to the other error contributions in the centroid position on the sensor array.

This work was done by Malcolm Wright, Gerardo Ortiz, and Muthu Jeganathan of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

Innovative Technology Assets Management
Mail Stop 202-233
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109-8099
(818) 354-2240
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Refer to NPO-30606.