An active laser was developed ranging in real-time with two terminals, emulating interplanetary distances, and with submillimeter accuracy. In order to overcome the limitations to ranging accuracy from jitters and delay drifts within the transponders, architecture was proposed based on asynchronous paired one-way ranging with local references. A portion of the transmitted light is directed, via a reference path, to the local detector. This allows for compensation of any jitter in the timing of the emitted laser pulse. The same detector is used to measure the time of the received pulses emitted from the remote terminal. This approach removes any change in the delay caused by the detector or its electronics.

Two separate terminals using commercial off-the-shelf hardware were built to emulate active laser ranging over interplanetary distances. The communication link for the command to start recording pulse arrival times and data transfer from one terminal to the other was achieved using a standard wireless link, emulating free space laser communication. The deviation is well below the goal of 1-mm precision. This leaves enough margin to achieve 1-mm precision when including the fluctuations due to atmospheric turbulence while ranging to Mars through the Earth’s atmosphere. The two terminals are mounted on translation stages, which can be moved freely on rails to yield a wide range of distances with fine adjustment. The two terminals were separated by approximately 16 meters.

This work was done by Hamid Hemmati, Yijiang Chen, and Kevin Birnbaum of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact iaoffice@jpl. NPO-48125

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2012 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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