A room temperature sapphire acoustics resonator incorporated into an oscillator represents a possible opportunity to improve on quartz ultrastable oscillator (USO) performance, which has been a staple for NASA missions since the inception of spaceflight. Where quartz technology is very mature and shows a performance improvement of perhaps 1 dB/decade, these sapphire acoustic resonators when integrated with matured quartz electronics could achieve a frequency stability improvement of 10 dB or more. As quartz oscillators are an essential element of nearly all types of frequency standards and reference systems, the success of MSAR would advance the development of frequency standards and systems for both ground-based and flight-based projects.
Current quartz oscillator technology is limited by quartz mechanical Q. With a possible improvement of more than ×10 Q with sapphire acoustic modes, the stability limit of current quartz oscillators may be improved tenfold, to 10–14 at 1 second. The electromagnetic modes of sapphire that were previously developed at JPL require cryogenic temperatures to achieve the high Q levels needed to achieve this stability level. However sapphire’s acoustic modes, which have not been used before in a high-stability oscillator, indicate the required Q values (as high as Q = 108) may be achieved at room temperature in the kHz range. Even though sapphire is not piezoelectric, such a high Q should allow electrostatic excitation of the acoustic modes with a combination of DC and AC voltages across a small sapphire disk (≈ l mm thick). The first evaluations under this task will test predictions of an estimated input impedance of 10 kilohms at Q = 108, and explore the Q values that can be realized in a smaller resonator, which has not been previously tested for acoustic modes.
This initial Q measurement and excitation demonstration can be viewed similar to a transducer converting electrical energy to mechanical energy and back. Such an electrostatic tweeter type excitation of a mechanical resonator will be tested at 5 MHz. Finite element calculation will be applied to resonator design for the desired resonator frequency and optimum configuration. The experiment consists of the sapphire resonator sandwiched between parallel electrodes. A DC+AC voltage can be applied to generate a force to act on a sapphire resonator. With the frequency of the AC voltage tuned to the sapphire resonator frequency, a resonant condition occurs and the sapphire Q can be measured with a high-frequency impedance analyzer.
To achieve high Q values, many experimental factors such as vacuum seal, gas damping effects, charge buildup on the sapphire surface, heat dissipation, sapphire anchoring, and the sapphire mounting configuration will need attention. The effects of these parameters will be calculated and folded into the resonator design. It is envisioned that the initial test configuration would allow for movable electrodes to check gap spacing dependency and verify the input impedance prediction.
Quartz oscillators are key components in nearly all ground- and space-based communication, tracking, and radio science applications. They play a key role as local oscillators for atomic frequency standards and serve as flywheel oscillators or to improve phase noise in high-performance frequency and timing distribution systems. With ultra-stable performance from one to three seconds, an Earth-orbit or moon-based MSAR can enhance available performance options for spacecraft due to elimination of atmospheric path degradation.