Since Galileo's first telescope some 400 years ago, astronomers have been building ever-larger instruments. Yet only within the last two decades has it become possible to realize the potential angular resolutions of large ground-based telescopes, by using adaptive optics (AO) technology to counter the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere. And only within the past decade have the development of laser guide stars (LGS) extended AO capabilities to observe science targets nearly anywhere in the sky. Improving turbulence simulation strategies and LGS are the two main topics of my research.
In the first part of this thesis, I report on the development of a technique for manufacturing phase plates for simulating atmospheric turbulence in the laboratory. The process involves strategic application of clear acrylic paint onto a transparent substrate. Results of interferometric characterization of the plates are described and compared to Kolmogorov statistics. The range of r0 (Fried's parameter) achieved thus far is 0.2 - 1.2 mm at 650 nm measurement wavelength, with a Kolmogorov power law.
These plates proved valuable at the Laboratory for Adaptive Optics at University of California, Santa Cruz, where they have been used in the Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics testbed, during integration and testing of the Gemini Planet Imager, and as part of the calibration system of the on-sky AO testbed named ViLLaGEs (Visible Light Laser Guidestar Experiments). I present a comparison of measurements taken by ViLLaGEs of the power spectrum of a plate and the real sky turbulence. The plate is demonstrated to follow Kolmogorov theory well, while the sky power spectrum does so in a third of the data. This method of fabricating phase plates has been established as an effective and low-cost means of creating simulated turbulence. Due to the demand for such devices, they are now being distributed to other members of the AO community.
The second topic of this thesis pertains to understanding and optimizing the laser beacons used to bring AO correction to parts of the sky that lack a naturally bright light source for measuring atmospheric distortion. Long pulse length laser guide stars (LGS) that use fluorescence from the D2 transition in mesospheric sodium are valuable both due to their high altitude, and because they permit Rayleigh blanking and fratricide avoidance in multiple LGS systems. Bloch equation simulations of sodium-light interactions in Mathematica show that certain spectral formats and pulse lengths (on the order of 30 μs), with high duty cycles (20-50%), should be able to achieve photon returns within 10% of what is seen from continuous wave (CW) excitation.
Utilizing this recently developed code (called LGSBloch), I investigated the time dependent characteristics of sodium fluorescence. I then identified the optimal format for the new LGS that will be part of the upgrade to the AO system on the Shane 3 meter telescope at the Lick Observatory. I discuss these results, along with their general applicability to other LGS systems, and provide a brief description of the potential benefits of uplink correction.
Predictions from the LGSBloch simulation package are compared to data from currently operating LGS systems. For a CW LGS, the return flux measurements and theory show reasonable agreement, but for short pulse lasers, such as those at the Lick and Keck Observatories, the code seems to be overestimating the data by a factor of 2 - 3. Several tactics to explicate this discrepancy are explored, such as verifying parameters involved in the measurements and including greater detail in the modeling. Although these efforts were unsuccessful at removing the discrepancy, they illuminated other facets of the problem that deserve further consideration.
Use of the sophisticated LGSBloch model has allowed detailed study of the evolution of the energy level populations and other physical effects (e.g. Larmor precession, atomic recoil, and collisions). This has determined formats that will have maximal coupling efficiency of the laser light to the sodium atoms in order to achieve the highest possible return signal per Watt of output power. These quantitative findings allow the astronomical AO community to make rational, physics-based choices of which high-power (and unavoidably high-cost) lasers to procure for implementation in future LGS systems.