Thursday, March 23, 2006

Communication Lasers

Jon Goff notes that MIT has developed a new, more sensitive infrared receiver. The article mentions that data rates to space probes might improve as a result. Brian Dunbar wonders why I think pointing (and though I didn't mention it, antennas) are a big problem.

The location of Mars is known to great accuracy, and the location of the spacecraft is well known also. The direction the spacecraft is pointing is less well known, and the direction that the laser comes out of it is less well known also, and that's the pointing problem in a nutshell.

Think in solid angles. An omnidirectional antenna spreads its transmitted energy evenly over the whole sphere: 4*pi steradians. So, if you transmit 100 watts across 4 x 10^8 km (max distance to Mars) to a 70 meter dish at Goldstone, the most signal you can receive is (10 watts) * (goldstone aperture) / (transmit solid angle) / (distance^2). That's 100 * (pi*35^2) / (4*pi) / (4*10^11)^2, or about 2 * 10^-19 watts. You can see why the folks who built Goldstone wanted it a long way from the nearest 100 kilowatt AM radio station.

A 4 meter high gain antenna might transmit 100 watts at 20 GHz. 20 GHz is 1.5 cm wavelength, so the planar beam spread might be about (1.5cm/4m)^2 = 1.4*10^-5 steradians. The Goldstone dish will receive 7*10^4 times as much power from this dish as from the omnidirectional antenna (still a piddly 1.3*10^-14 watts). The downside is that you have to point the antenna to within 1 part in 530, about 0.5 degree accuracy. That's not too hard.

Now suppose you transmit with a 100 watt 1.55um infrared laser, with an aperture of 4cm. The beam spread is 100 times smaller than that old high gain antenna (and the solid angle is 10,000 times smaller). The Goldstone dish is now receiving 1.3*10^-10 watts, which is much better, but you'll have to orient the spacecraft that much more accurately. Which means eddy currents in the propellant swishing around in your tanks will knock the beam off. Sunlight pressure will knock it off. Worse still, differential heating of your optics will cause the beam to steer relative to the spacecraft. The fact that the spacecraft is in free-fall means that the structure between your star sensors and your maser has changed shape somewhat since you calibrated it on the ground before launch. All of which means when your computer thinks it's pointing the beam at Earth, it's acutally illuminating the Mare Iridium, and Goldstone is getting nothing.

Except the trouble is that Goldstone can't handle the infrared radiation your laser produces, so you'll need something more like an infrared telescope, which might have a 2 meter aperture instead of Goldstone's 70 meter aperture, and so you've lost three of your four orders of magnitude improvement.

Now if someone shows me a spacecraft with a multimeter telescope used to transmit infrared to Earth, I'll get seriously impressed. Courtesy of the fiber optic revolution, we now have an awesome amount of experience with high-data-rate micron (i.e. infrared) lasers. I can imagine a satellite's telescope where the same mirror is used to transmit to and also take pictures of earth. The pictures taken are used for pointing calibration, and now the stable optical structure is just the picture sensor and laser transmit head, and doesn't include the mirror at all. As a side benefit, the same telescope and imaging system can be used for very nice pictures of the probe target, i.e. Mars, although not at the same time, of course. You might even be able to do high-precision lidar (radar with lasers) surface terrain measurement.