A report discusses a proposal to use thermal (long-wavelength infrared) images of the Earth, as seen from spacecraft at interplanetary distances, for pointing antennas and telescopes toward the Earth for Ka-band and optical communications. The purpose is to overcome two limitations of using visible images: (1) at large Earth phase angles, the light from the Earth is too faint; and (2) performance is degraded by large albedo variations associated with weather changes. In particular, it is proposed to use images in the wavelength band of 8 to 13 µm, wherein the appearance of the Earth is substantially independent of the Earth phase angle and emissivity variations are small. The report addresses tracking requirements for optical and Ka-band communications, selection of the wavelength band, available signal level versus phase angle, background noise, and signal-to-noise ratio. Tracking errors are estimated for several conceptual systems employing currently available infrared image sensors. It is found that at Mars range, it should be possible to locate the centroid of the Earth image within a noise equivalent angle (a random angular error) between 10 and 150 nanoradians at a bias error of no more than 80 nanoradians.

This work was done by Gerardo Ortiz and Shinhak Lee of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Physical Sciences category.