What is it for?
The work of the Optics Laboratory relates to optical systems –instruments or equipment based on the interaction of matter with light. The word 'optics' comes from the Greek for eye, but the Laboratory's testing extends beyond human vision, encompassing a wide range of electromagnetic radiation from thermal infrared to energetic ultraviolet wavelengths.
Space telescopes are the most conspicuous examples of space optical systems. The Hubble Space Telescope famously demonstrates the extreme precision of optical requirements – it had post-launch short-sightedness because its main mirror's edge was just 0.002 mm too flat. The Laboratory performs initial design assessments and materials testing for space telescopes but also tests cameras and imaging instruments of all sizes.
In addition it has responsibility for the assessment and testing of spectrometers, an important class of instruments which break down incoming light into a spectrum of individual wavelengths to retrieve chemical information on targets such as distant stars, planetary surfaces and the terrestrial atmosphere.
The Laboratory also assesses how optical elements perform within other subsystems or instruments. For example it measures the reflectivity of retro-reflectors - fitted aboard satellites to enable precise laser ranging from the ground, or to allow precision rendezvous and docking operations (e.g. ATV and the ISS). It also collaborates with the adjacent Opto-Electronics Laboratory to establish the working lifetime and damage tolerance of optical components within high-powered lasers.
It takes a lead in measuring the optical properties of new materials and high performance optical coatings. Optical systems traditionally have very high mass requirements but the Laboratory has been active in qualifying novel light-weight optical materials such as Silicon Carbide. Most of all the Laboratory serves as a resource to ESA projects and industrial activities, harnessing state-of-the-art resources and long expertise to test and verify optical devices, and quantify and remedy hardware malfunctions on the ground or anomalies occurring in orbit.
Last update: 10 September 2009