NASA today said it would work with a team of researchers on a three-year, $1.8 project to build gyroscope systems that are more than 1,000 times as sensitive as those in use today.
The Fast Light Optical Gyroscope project will marry researchers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center; the US Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center and Northwestern University to develop gyroscopes that could find their way into complex spacecraft, aircraft, commercial vehicles or ships in the future.
These highly sensitive gyroscopes, paired with accelerometers, measure a vehicle's attitude, or orientation based on its angular or rotational momentum in flight, and track its velocity and acceleration to precisely determine its position, flight path and attitude, NASA said.
A technological leap forward is needed as new robotic and crewed missions into the solar system are planned, for example. "Even the best modern spaceflight navigation systems can suffer from accumulated 'dead reckoning' errors -- positioning miscalculations that result when an absolute point of reference, or a fixed 'landmark' in space, is not readily available. To correct for such errors, flight operations personnel must rely on backup technologies, including Earth-based systems such as a global positioning system, or GPS. But such measures often lack the precision or uninterrupted flow of data needed to make critical course adjustments or maneuvers. And once explorers' vehicles venture away from Earth, GPS becomes useless," NASA said.
Specifically the group will investigate the use of optical dispersion, or the manner in which different wavelengths, or "colors," of light travel at different speeds through a material, to manipulate the sensitivity of the gyroscopes' optical cavities, NASA said.
"In certain materials, such as the atomic gases the team is studying, this dispersion can cause pulses of light to travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum. This phenomenon, known as "fast-light," can increase the sensitivity of a gyro's optical cavity, allowing it to more precisely measure how fast a spacecraft is rotating -- the crux of accurate and reliable inertial navigation data," NASA said.
But improved navigation is not the only application of the new gyroscopes. "The same technology also may be used to realize a tabletop-sized gravitational wave detector, thus opening the door for astrophysical observations beyond what can be seen via electromagnetic waves. Other applications of this technology include ultra-precise measurement of acceleration, vibration, strain and magnetic field," Selim Shahriar, a professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Laboratory of Atomic and Photonic Technology at Northwestern University.
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