When light propagates through the atmosphere the fluctuating refractive index caused by temperature gradients, humidity fluctuations and the wind mixing of air cause the phase of the optical field to be corrupted. In strong turbulence, over horizontal paths or at large zenith angles, the phase aberration is converted to intensity variation (scintillation) as interference within the beam and diffraction effects produce the peaks and zeros of a speckle-like pattern. At the zeros of intensity the phase becomes indeterminate as both the real and imaginary parts of the field go to zero. The wavefront is no longer continuous but contains dislocations along lines connecting phase singularities of opposite rotation.
Conventional adaptive optics techniques of wavefront sensing and wavefront reconstruction do not account for discontinuous phase functions and hence can only conjugate an averaged, continuous wavefront. We are developing an adaptive optics system that can cope with dislocations in the phase function for potential use in a line-of-sight optical communications link.
Using a ferroelectric liquid crystal spatial light modulator (FLC SLM) to generate dynamic atmospheric phase screens in the laboratory, we simulate strong scintillation conditions where high densities of phase singularities exist in order to compare wavefront sensors for tolerance to scintillation and accuracy of wavefront recovery.