Characterizing Atmospheric Turbulence with Conventional and Plenoptic approaches

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Atmospheric turbulence is a phenomenon of interest in many scientific fields. The direct effects of atmospheric turbulence can be observed in everyday situations. The twinkling of stars is an indicator of weak atmospheric turbulence while the shimmering of objects above a hot surface is an indicator of strong atmospheric turbulence. The effects of atmospheric turbulence are generally considered a nuisance to optical applications. Image blurring effects are often present when observing distant objects through atmospheric turbulence. Applications that require maintaining the coherence of a laser beam, such as in free space optical communication, suffer from poor link quality in the presence of atmospheric turbulence.

Attempts to compensate for the effects of atmospheric turbulence have varied in effectiveness. In astronomical applications, weak cases of atmospheric turbulence have been successfully compensated with the use of a Shack-Hartmann wavefront sensor combined with adaptive optics. Software techniques such as “Lucky Imaging” can be useful when clear images briefly appear through the presence of weak turbulence. However, stronger cases of atmospheric turbulence often found in horizontal or slant paths near the Earth’s surface present a much more challenging situation to counteract.

This thesis focuses primarily on the effects of strong or “deep” atmospheric turbulence. The process of compensating for the effects of strong atmospheric turbulence begins with being able to characterize it effectively. A scintillometer measures the scintillation in the intensity of a light source to determine the strength of current turbulence conditions. Thermal fluctuation measurements can also be used to derive the strength of atmospheric turbulence. Experimental results are presented of a developed large aperture scintillometer, thermal probe atmospheric characterization device, and a transmissometer. While these tools are effective in characterizing atmospheric turbulence, they do not provide for a means to correct for turbulence effects. To compensate for the effects of atmospheric turbulence, the development of the Plenoptic Sensor is presented as a wavefront sensor capable of handling strong turbulence conditions. Theoretical and experimental results are presented to demonstrate the performance of the Plenoptic Sensor, specifically in how it leads to adaptive optics algorithms that can rapidly correct for the effects of turbulence.