A phase sensor has been developed for use in aligning a segmented telescope mirror to within a fraction of a wavelength in piston. (As used here, "piston" signifies displacement of a mirror segment along the optical axis of the telescope.) Such precise alignment is necessary in order to realize the full benefit of the large aperture achievable through segmentation.
This phase sensor is achromatic. It is based on two-wavelength shearing interferometry, and can be modified to utilize an extended or broad-band (e.g., white) light source. The sensor optics include a ruled diffraction grating and an imaging lens.
The sensor can measure the piston shift between segments as well as aberrations of the segments. It can measure the surface error of an individual segment, making it possible to compensate for the error with optimal amount(s) of piston and/or tilt. The precise capture range of the sensor depends partly on the telescope design; the largest relative piston shifts measurable measurable by use of this sensor are of the order of 100 µm. The accuracy of the sensor also depends partly on the telescope design; in general, the accuracy is sufficient to enable alignment to within approximately half a wavelength. The interferometric image is digitized and processed by a simple algorithm in real time, and the output of the algorithm can be used to maintain alignment in real time, even in the presence of atmospheric turbulence.
The sensor is robust. Through calibration, it can be made insensitive to (and, hence, tolerant of) misalignments and aberrations of its own optics, most aberrations of the telescope as a whole (in contradistinction to aberrations of individual segments), and most aberrations introduced by atmospheric turbulence.
This work was done by H. Philip Stahl of Marshall Space Flight Center and Chanda Bartlett Walker of Pace & Waite, Inc. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free online at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Physical Sciences category.