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NASA

NASA FACTS Vol. 111, No. 6

An Educational Services Publication of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

FACTS
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THE LASER
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The

LASER Telescope located at Wallops Island, Virginia which was used, successfully, to

track Explorer X X l l (theBeacon Satellite).

Scientists in government and industry have teamed t o unlock the secrets and devise applications of concentrated light which can be generated through a technique called LASERl i g h t Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. I t s use, science i s discovering, may permit countless new and more efficient methods in operations requiring direct applications of energy.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's interest i n laser applicability lies mainly in four general areas: Space communications, optical radar, industrial application, and space tracking and navigation. It is in these fields that NASA i s placing particular emphasis, although i t s research teams are following many avenues in the exploration, study,

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NASA FACTS Vol. 111, No. 6

and tests of the laser in their efforts to fully uqderstand its capabilities. To understand the laser, it i s useful to examine an associated technique called maser (Microwave Amplification b y Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Masers and lasers are closely related. Both lasers (concentrated light waves) and masers (concentrated microwaves) are electromagnetic energy differing only in frequency or wavelength. Masers, as amplifiers, perform a function similar t o that filled b y certain electron tubes and semiconductors. As generators, masers take a place similar to conventional electronic oscillator tubes and travelling wave tubes. Lasers, on the other hand, stand out as the only generators of coherent electromagnetic energy at light frequencies. A laser, therefore, i s a maser whose output beam falls into the light frequency portion o f the spectrum. Accordingly lasers are also known as optical masers. The dividing line between masers and lasers on the electromagnetic spectrum is 300 kilomegacycles-the upper end

of the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic radiation i s made up of tiny It comes naturally packets of pure energy. from the sun in the form of heat and light. Light waves and radio waves are electromagnetic energy, as are microwaves, infrared rays, ultraviolet rays, X-rays and gamma rays. While no one person can be credited with the invention of the laser technique, a physicist, Charles H. Townes, had much to do with its development. In 1 9 5 1, while searching for a way to make microwaves more useful, he developed a theory to harness their energy by manipulating the normal behavior patterns of electrons and atoms. In 1954, he devised a technique to force atoms to emit a stable, coherent level of energy. Thus, the maser was born. In 1960, Mr. Townes, together with another scientist, Arthur L. Schawlow, devised a similar technique to harness the energy of light waves and the laser was born. Basically, the laser is a device used in the

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COHERENT RADIATION

INCOHERENT RADIATION

The upper illustration, indicoting o steady, phased radiation, i s such o s that emitted by the laser. The lower diogrom indicotes the random effect of radiation such as that emiwed by ordinary incondescent light.

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It i s This i s whot o laser device looks like in action. mounted on on 18-inch telescope atop a 60-foot tower neor NASA’s Wallops Island Stotion, Virginia.

technique for producing a beam of light of such small size and s o closely concentrated that it will not greatly increase i n size or diffuse, as the Laser light travels outward from i t s source. light differs in character f r o m ordinary light in the same way that a battalion of well drilled soldiers differs from a disorganized mob.

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NASA FACTS Vol. 111, No. 6

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Laser technology i s based on the principle that light waves differ from microwaves generated in radio transmission, etc., in that the crests o f waves are closer together. Hence, they can be focused or concentrated more intensely. This means the beam of light will travel thousands of miles through space before its width increases As a result, this beam of lightsignificantly. more properly, energy-is capable of performing many diversified tasks. Just how many and how But scienwell are still wondrous conjecture. tists have already discovered that the laser can effortlessly pierce or cut the hardest of materials It offers such as tungsten, steel, or diamond. the promise of carrying a tremendous numberperhaps millions-of telephone calls or television It may measure dischannels simultaneously. tance, alter the atomic structure of molecules, or be used in the performance of delicate surgical operations. Furthermore, it seems capable of welding most anything-from delicate human tissues to the toughest of steels produced b y industry. The laser does not develop ordinary light. Light emitted by the incandescent light bulb, for example, i s produced when the filament (usually tungsten) within the vacuum of the bulb i s heated. As electric current is applied t o the filament, i t s molecules, bathed in a field of electromagnetic energy, give up their energy t o the field. The

hot glow of light thus provided i s a spontaneous or random emission of energy. Because of the random emission, ordinary light contains all colors of the spectrum, diffuses quickly, radiates different wave lengths and frequencies at the same time, and cannot be precisely o accurately r directed. Moreover, it has an inherently l o w quality of brightness. The laser produces a beam of light possessing opposite qualities. The laser beam i s monochromatic (single frequency). Research scientists for some years have noted that as certain materials begin to cool after being heated (in technical language, stimulated), their atoms emit energy in This Stimulated Emisthe form of light waves. sion provides a part of the acronym IaSEr.

This schematic diagram of a laser i s indicative of the g r w t simplicity of the device. The laser has many application possibilities. Considerable emphasis i s being placed on laser development in the fields of communications, radars, medicine and welding.

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Dr. Joseph Randall, of the Astronautics Laborotory at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, inserts a rod of yttrium aluminum garnet doped with neodymium into a laser “gun” in preparation for an experiment.

Scientists observed also that when the atoms are stimulated they emit their light precisely in unison or, again in technical language, in phase. Further, it was observed that their light waves move i n one precise direction. Scientists describe this one-way action of the light as “coherent.” If you have ever focused a lighted flashlight into a mirror in a darkened room, you’ve undoubtedly noticed how the reflected light seems to amplify in intensity and lighten the whole room. In a manner of speaking, this i s exactly what the laser device does to Amplify the Light emitted by the atoms. Thus, we have l i g h t Amplification-two more letters of our acronym LAser. A pencil-size rod of synthetic ruby was used in making the first lasers, i n early 1960. The rod ends, squared off and silver coated (one end more heavily silvered than the other), served as two facing mirrors.

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Around the r o d was placed a coil of Xenon flash-tube (a tube containing the heavy inert gaseous element Xenon). When this tube was made to flash, (electrically fired) the intense flash of light (energy) fed into the ruby rod. This energy caused a few of the chromium atoms present as an impurity in synthetic ruby t o become highly excited. The energy thus produced sought t o escape through one end of the ruby rod. Instead, the energy was trapped by a mirrored end of the rod and reflected directly back to the opposite end. Enroute, the energy caused s t i l l more ions to become excited. So, to-

NASA FACTS Vol. 111, No. 6

Then, when the reaction had built up enougti, Radiation forced through the less silvered end of the r o d as a powerful, pencil-thin beam of intense, “coherent” red light. Radiation contributes the fifth letter in the acronym IaseR. An attribute of the laser is its singular color.

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As mentioned earlier, ordinary light contains all
colors of the spectrum. Laser light is more onecolored than ordinary light. Its single-color light, depending upon the material used in the laser technique, theoretically can be of any single color. Light emitted from the ruby rod i s a brilliant deep red.

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o These are ruby rods, iust as they are grown, and before they have been ground, polished and silvered. T grow one, scientists place calcium tungstate crystals in a crucible and heat them to about 2,800 degrees F . During the heating process, chromium ions, When the proper temperature i s reached, the fused and nearly liquid t a act as impurities, are introduced into the crystal melts. crystal i s pink in color from the chromium ions. The melt of crystal, turned slowly to give it a general rod-like shape, i s taken from the crucible with a platinum wire. While these rods look light pink, in laser use, they develop a deep red light. The penny in the photograph illustrates the comparative s i r e of the rods.

gether-in unison-the energy moved toward the opposite mirror where again, it was caught and reflected anew, towards the other mirrored rodend. Finally, bounced back and forth between the facing mirror-ends of the ruby rod, and causing additional ions to “join the crowd marching i n unison,” the energy became so -highlywamplified that the r o d could contain it no more.

Ruby lasers in use generally are able to give out only short pulses of light-for about 1 /1,000,000th of a second. And these flashes can be generated only about once or twice each second. Other solids substituted for the ruby r o d have served to increase the length of time in continuous operation. Most such solids, but not all, however, produce infrared light.

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NASA FACTS Vol. 111, No. 6 Another type of laser i s generated from a mixture of helium andheon gases. Gas lasers can be used for any desired length of time, but are characteristically lower in power than the pulsed solid lasers. However, the gas laser can produce both visual and infrared beams. But, the characteristics of neither gas nor solid lasers are fully understood as yet. Science teams in

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government and industry jointly believe these fields of laser research to hold great promise. It is possibk to focus the laser's concentrated beam into a spot measuring no more than 5 / 100,000ths of an inch. In fact, a laser can be directed so sharply that i t s accuracy is limited only by the precision of the telescope used i n aiming it.

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Close up view of the NASA Explorer X X l l (the B e a c o n satellite). Quartz refkctors, 360 of them, are mounted an an eight-sided fiat-top pyramid Two sdor ponds s h o w n in left and right forefront of the picture are designed t o catch the sun's rays for conversion into electricity. T h e 116-lb windmill-shapd spacaraft i s equipped to make surveys of Earth's ionosphere and t evaluate o laser techniques.

NASA FACTS VoL 111, No. 6

A boom of loser light is so concentrated thot it will spread only one-third of on inch for each mile thot it travels from its transmitter. The moon is 238,357 miles away from earth and has a diameter of 2,160 miles. Thus, if we aimed a laser b w m at o moon torget a s diogranmed in the photo at left, our boom, on skiking the moon, would illuminate an areo obout one mile in diometer as illustrated in the photo ot right. If we were oble to build CI search light, using ordinary electric light, powerful enough to tmvel the distonco to the moon, its rays would probably cover on areo equol to six times the diameter of the moon.

N A S A i s using laser i n connection with the Explorer XXII, XXVll and XXlX (the Geodetic Explorer) satellites which were launched October 10, 1964, April 29, 1965, and November 6, 1 965, respectively. These satellite experiments provide a means to investigate the uses and techniques of space communications and tracking. The satellites carry equipment for laser tracking, the laser device being mounted on an Intercept Ground Optical Recorder (IGOR) telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. With this arrangement, the laser i s aimed a l o n g a predicted path of the satellite. The laser beam i s flashed when the orbiter appears over the station. A reflector assembly on the spacecraft returns the light beam t o a photomultiplier tube i n the ground telescope. The time for the round trip of the laser beam enables the trackers to pinpoint the distance of the satellite within 10 feet-for a satellite more than 600 miles away. By adding an azimuth or angular measurement of the beam, the direction of the satellite can be obtained. The reflector assembly consists of fused silica prisms mounted on the satellite. When a light ray hits the face of any prism, it will be reflected directly back t o its source. Explorer XXlX i s

stabilized in i t s flight s o as t o keep the reflector assembly pointing earthward at all times. The reflector assembly i s composed of 360 fused silica corner reflector prisms each coated with aluminum to make them highly reflective. Then, each prism i s finally coated with a silicon oxide-a conventional protective process used on the front face of any optical quality glass. Fused silica, a form of glass, was used in the reflector assembly instead of more conventional glass because the latter would have turned black after two months of exposure to radiation in free space. Fused silica will remain highly reflective for a longer time than ordinary glass. A future laser flight experiment may be a twoway communication link-up in which a satellite would receive a laser beam from a ground station, modulate the beam, and relay it to another ground station. Laboratory tests and experiments under way in the NASA program range from basic research (for learning the nature of lasers and the forces behind them) to advanced applied projects in their uses. The Explorer satellites involve two major potential peaceful uses of the laser for which NASA established the program: ( 1 ) optical radar, and ( 2 )space tracking.

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This i s a loser stripped of i t s outer covering t o illustrate the positioning of the ruby rod (center) and the flash tube (right). Note the comparotive size of the laser with the technician’s hand which holds it. A single pulse of light, lasting for 1/1,000,000th of a second i s powerful enough to voporize a hole completely through a rozor blode. I t would use about the same amount of energy as would be required by the batteries o a hand flashlight to operate i t s light bulb for two seconds. f

Samples of potential uses of lasers by private industry include advance warning to aircraft pilots of air turbulence; drilling and welding of machine and electronic parts; erasure of typewritten letters with the split-millisecond pulses of heat vaporizing the typewriter ink. There are many others. In medicine, a laser has been used at Columbia

Presbyterian Hospital in New York City t o “spot weld” a detached retina in a human eye. Similar surgical techniques now appear very promising for brain and nerve operations, according t o medical authorities. Chemists, too, have an interest in the laser, whose beams may be used t o create chemical reactions never before possible, or even to pro-

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Scientist now Research and development work in the field of losers has developed rapidly. understand the principles of laser action and understand quality of materials which produce efficient losers. While an important number of loser applications have been discovered, scienShown obove i s a t i s t s feel that possible applications of the loser hove barely been tapped. portable bser held in the left hand of Dr. C. F. Luck of the Raytheon Company. He i s checking the power supply that runs it.

vide a tool t o manipulate a single atom within the molecule. Laser beams have also demonstrated promise i n the metallurgy field-to cut, weld, and pierce materials such as tungsten, diamonds, and steel. One of the most dramatic demonstrations of laser possibilities was provided by researchers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Raytheon Company. They shot laser beams at the moon and detected their reflections back on earth. Each of the 13 short bursts of the red laser beam made the half-million-mile round trip in 2 % seconds. Man had illuminated a celestial body for the first time with an optical device. Private industry and the Department of
NASA FACTS format i s designed for bulletin-board display uncut, or for 8 x 1 0 % looseleof notebook insertion when Cut along dotted lines ond folded along solid lines. For notebook ring insertion, punch at solid dots in the margins.

Defense are also among the enthusiasts in laser development and are hard at work in their respective fields on commercial and military applications of the technique. The laser also holds great promise in space and especially for communications, tracking and navigation. For example, the laser shows great promise in detecting and measuring high altitude cosmic dust; and the use of laser gyroscopes in the guidance systems of rocket launch vehicles is now undergoing tests. Much advanced work i s being conducted at NASA’s Marshall and Goddard Space Flight Centers. However, NASA expects to stimulate and carry out a great many promising research projects with lasers at its new Electronics Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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NASA FACTS i s an educational publication of NASA’s Educotionol Progroms and Services Office. It w i l l be moiled to addresses who request i t from: NASA, Educational Publicotions Distribution Center, FAD-1, Washington, D.C. 20546.

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