Femtosecond comb lasers help formation flying in space

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Washington, October 4 (ANI): Researchers at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) have helped to establish that femtosecond comb lasers can provide accurate measurement of absolute distance in formation flying space missions.

NPL, along with collaborators, produced technical reports for the European Space Agency.

The conclusions demonstrated that the lasers were a suitable method for measurement in such missions.

Formation flying missions involve multiple spacecrafts flying between tens and hundreds of metres apart, which autonomously control their position relative to each other.

The benefit of such missions is that they can gather data in a completely different way to a standard spacecraft, in the sense that the formation can effectively act as one large sensor.Measuring absolute distance between the formation spacecraft is critical to mission success. Femtosecond comb lasers are an accurate way of making such measurements.

The lasers emit light with very short pulses - each lasting just a few femtoseconds. A femtosecond is one billionth of one millionth of a second. The short pulses allow time of flight measurements to be used to determine distance to a few microns.

For example, in the proposed International X-ray Observatory mission, due to launch after 2020, it is thought that the 25 metre spacecraft will require highly accurate measurement of the absolute distance between the front and back of the spacecraft because the craft's body will be flexible.For the x-ray images to stay in focus, the position and orientation of the mirror at one end will have to be known, and controlled, to roughly 300 microns in length and 10 arc seconds in angle.

Otherwise, the telescope will not be able to resolve an image and the mission would fail.

Achieving this accuracy is enormously challenging on board a spacecraft. Instrumentation requires such accuracy, but must also be robust enough to survive launch and the ravages of space.

The other challenge in formation flying is achieving the formation itself, which is done once the spacecrafts reach the appropriate region of space.

The spacecraft orient themselves in relation to each other by plotting their positions relative to known stars, and then establish their lateral positions via laser pointers. Once the formation is established, it can be maintained via highly accurate absolute length measurements between the spacecrafts. (ANI)

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