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Lasers Generate Pure Microwave Signals
Jun 2011
GAITHERSBURG, Md., June 28, 2011 — A new low-noise oscillator is generating microwave signals more pure and stable than those from conventional electronic sources. The apparatus could improve signal stability and resolution in radar, communications and navigation systems, and in certain types of atomic clocks.

The device, created by physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is a new application of optical frequency combs — tools based on ultrafast lasers for precisely measuring optical frequencies, or colors, of light. Frequency combs are best known as the "gears" for experimental next-generation atomic clocks, where they convert optical signals to lower microwave frequencies, which can be counted electronically.

Matt Kirchner, a University of Colorado graduate student, fine-tunes an ultrastable microwave generator that he helps operate at NIST. (Image: Burrus/NIST)

The new system is so good that NIST scientists actually had to make two copies of the apparatus just to have a separate tool precise enough to measure the system's performance. Each low-noise system is based on a continuous-wave laser with its frequency locked to the extremely stable length of an optical cavity with a high "quality factor," assuring a steady and persistent signal. This laser, which emitted yellow light in the demonstration but could be another color, is connected to a frequency comb that transfers the high level of stability to microwaves. The transfer process greatly reduces — to one-thousandth of the previous level — random fluctuations in the peaks and valleys, or phase, of the electromagnetic waves over time scales of 1 s or less. This results in a stronger, purer signal at the exact desired frequency.

The base microwave signal is 1 GHz, which is the repetition rate of the ultrafast laser pulses that generate the frequency comb. The signal also can be a harmonic, or multiple, of that frequency. The laser illuminates a photodiode that produces a signal at 1 GHz or any multiple up to about 15 GHz. For example, many common radar systems use signals near 10 GHz.

NIST's low-noise oscillator might be useful in radar systems for detecting faint or slow-moving objects. The system also might be used to make atomic clocks operating at microwave frequencies — such as the current international standard cesium atom clocks — more stable. Other applications could include high-resolution analog-to-digital conversion of very fast signals, such as for communications or navigation, and radio astronomy that couples signals from space with arrival times at multiple antennas.

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The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
Americasastronomyatomic clockBasic Sciencecesium atom clocksCommunicationsimaginglow-noise oscillatorMarylandmicrowave signalsNational Institute of Standards and TechnologyNISToptical frequency combsoptical signalsopticsradar systemsResearch & TechnologyTest & Measurementultrafast laserslasers

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