, Volume 22, Issue 5-6, pp 431-447

Unified Approach to Photon-Counting Microlaser Rangers, Transponders, and Altimeters

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Abstract

Unlike current manned systems, NASA's next generation SLR2000 Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR) station is fully autonomous, eye-safe, relatively compact and inexpensive, and, during daytime tracking, operates at signal-to-noise ratios several orders of magnitude below unity. Tiny, passivelyQ-switched microlasers generate ultra-short pulses with output energies on the order of 100 μJ at few kHz rates to achieve mm-levelranging precision to satellite altitudesof 20,000 km. Special ranging receivers, combined with Poisson statistical analysis of the received photon distribution, enable the system to rapidly and reliably identify and extract the single photon laser echoes from the solar background. The enhanced rate of return, combined with a uniform signal strength, can actually drive down both systematic and random range errors. The new SLR2000 technology has already spawned exciting new applications. Compact microlaser altimeters, capable of mapping the surface of a planet or other celestial body at multikilohertz rates, is one such application, and a high altitude, airborne version is currently being developed under NASA's Instrument Incubator Program. Interplanetary microlaser transponders would be capable of performing decimeter ranging or subnanosecond time transfer to spacecraft throughout the inner Solar System, resulting in improved knowledge of planetary motions and librations and enhanced General Relativity experiments.