To probe the molecular composition of a remote target, a laser is directed at a spot on the target, where melting and evaporation occur. The heated spot serves as a high-temperature blackbody source, and the ejected substance creates a plume of surface materials in front of the spot. Bulk molecular composition of the surface material is investigated by using a spectrometer to view the heated spot through the ejected plume. The proposed method is distinct from current stand-off approaches to composition analysis, such as Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), which atomizes and ionizes target material and observes emission spectra to determine bulk atomic composition. Initial simulations of absorption profiles based on theoretical models show great promise for the proposed method. This paper compares simulated spectral profiles with results of preliminary laboratory experiments. A sample is placed in an evacuated space, which is situated within the beam line of a Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer. A laser beam is directed at the sample through an optical window in the front of the vacuum space. As the sample is heated, and evaporation begins, the FTIR beam passes through the molecular plume, via IR windows in the sidewalls of the evacuated space. Sample targets, such as basalt, are tested and compared to the theoretically predicted spectra.
Deep space exploration will require laser communication systems optimized for cost, size, weight, and power. To improve these parameters, our group has been developing a photonic integrated circuit (PIC) based on indium phosphide for optical pulse position modulation (PPM). A field-programmable gate array (FPGA) was programmed to serve as a dedicated driver for the PIC. The FPGA is capable of generating 2-ary to 4096-ary PPM with a slot clock rate up to 700 MHz.
Asteroids impact Earth daily. Some, like the Chelyabinsk Meteor that exploded over Siberia in 2013, can cause massive disruption to human enterprise (~$33M in damages) and thousands of injuries. To mitigate this potentially disastrous threat, our group has posited a phased laser array which would be used to direct energy towards approaching asteroids or other dangerous near Earth objects (NEOs). The laser array would ablate the NEO’s surface, inducing mass ejection, that would then cause a reactant thrust on the NEO in the opposite direction of the laser. To verify this concept in a laboratory environment, this work quantitatively measured the thrust induced on basalt and other asteroid regolith simulant by a 350W laser array. By placing the sample target on a torsion balance and measuring its angle of deflection under ablation, it is possible to calculate the induced thrust per unit watt. This angular change is measured with a secondary laser that reflects off of the torsion balance into an optical position sensor. By comparing this paper’s experimental results with prior theoretical and computational work, we can surmise a theoretical relationship between NEO size and required laser power for future NEO deflection missions.
Directed energy is envisioned to drive wafer-scale spacecraft to relativistic speeds. Spacecraft propulsion is provided by a large array of lasers, either in Earth orbit or stationed on the ground. The directed-energy beam is focused on the spacecraft sail, and momentum from photons in the laser beam is transferred to the spacecraft as the beam reflects off of the sail. In order for the beam to be concentrated on the spacecraft, precise phase control of all the elements across the laser array will be required. Any phase misalignments within the array will give rise to pointing fluctuations and flux asymmetry in the beam, necessitating creative approaches to spacecraft stability and beam following. In order to simulate spacecraft acceleration using an array of phase-locked lasers, a near field intensity model of the laser array is required. This paper describes a light propagation model that can be used to calculate intensity patterns for the near-field diffraction of a phased array. The model is based on the combination of complex frequencies from an array of emitters as the beams from each emitter strike a target surface. Ray-tracing geometry is used to determine the distance from each point on an emitter optical surface to each point on the target surface, and the distance is used to determine the phase contribution. Simulations are presented that explore the effects of fixed and time-varying phase mis-alignments on beam pointing, beam intensity and focusing characteristics.
Comets and Asteroids are viable threats to our planet; if these space rocks are smaller than 25 meters, they burn up in the atmosphere, but if they are wider than 25 meters they can cause damage to the impact area. Anything more than one to two kilometers can have worldwide effects, furthermore a mile-wide asteroid travelling at 30,000 miles per hour has the energy equal to a megaton bomb and is very likely to wipe out most of the life on Earth. Residents near Chelyabinsk, Russia experienced the detrimental effects of a collision with a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) on 15 February 2013 as a ~20 m object penetrated the atmosphere above that city. The effective yield from this object was approximately 1/2 Megaton TNT equivalent (Mt), or that of a large strategic warhead. The 1908 Tunguska event, also over Russia, is estimated to have had a yield of approximately 15 Mt and had the potential to kill millions of people had it come down over a large city1. In the face of such danger a planetary defense system is necessary and this paper proposes a design for such a system. DE-STAR (Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation) is a phased array laser system that can be used to oblate, deflect and de-spin asteroids and comets.
Recently, there has been a dramatic change in the way space missions are viewed. Large spacecraft with massive propellant-filled launch stages have dominated the space industry since the 1960’s, but low-mass CubeSats and low-cost rockets have enabled a new approach to space exploration. In recent work, we have built upon the idea of extremely low mass (sub 1 kg), propellant-less spacecraft that are accelerated by photon propulsion from dedicated directed-energy facilities. Advanced photonics on a chip with hybridized electronics can be used to implement a laser-based communication system on board a sub 1U spacecraft that we call a WaferSat. WaferSat spacecraft are equipped with reflective sails suitable for propulsion by directed-energy beams. This low-mass spacecraft design does not require onboard propellant, creating significant new opportunities for deep space exploration at a very low cost. In this paper, we describe the design of a prototype WaferSat spacecraft, constructed on a printed circuit board. The prototype is envisioned as a step toward a design that could be launched on an early mission into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), as a key milestone in the roadmap to interstellar flight. In addition to laser communication, the WaferSat prototype includes subsystems for power source, attitude control, digital image acquisition, and inter-system communications.
A phased array operates by modulating the phases of several signals, allowing electronic control over the locations that these signals interfere constructively or destructively, allowing the beam to be steered. A space-based laser phased array, called the Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation (DE-STAR) has previously been posited by our group for a number of uses, from planetary defense to relativistic propulsion of small probes. Here we propose using the same basic system topology as a receiver rather than a transmitter. All of the components in the system, excluding the laser, are bidirectional. Rather than each elements transmitting laser light, they would instead receive light, which will then be combined to create an interference pattern that can be imaged onto a focal plane. The Laser Array Space Telescope (LAST) uses most of the same components and metrology as DE-STAR and could thus be integrated into a singular system, allowing both transmit and receive modes. This paper discusses the possible applications of this system from laser communications to astrophysics.