All Around CLEO/IQEC, Day 3

4. June 2009

By Patricia Daukantas

Unless you own your own prosperous company or have inherited a fortune, you need a job. So it’s no surprise that the career center on the PhotonXpo exhibit floor has been a hub of activity.

Yesterday’s CLEO career forum was an opportunity for young optics job-seekers to find out how different from graduate school the world of industry is. Jason Mulliner, director of product line management for Edmund Optics Inc. (Barrington, N.J., U.S.A.), admitted he hasn’t had to derive Maxwell’s equations once in the 10 years since he finished his B.S. in electrical engineering. But he has learned a host of more practical lessons: select your manager and team members with care, join a place where engineers are highly valued, and find a company that has a global presence, or is at least developing one.

Finlay Colville, marketing director for the solar division of Coherent Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif., U.S.A.), had no idea he would end up in solar energy when he attended his first CLEO 16 years ago, right after finishing his Ph.D. in laser physics. He had gotten into laser R&D in the laboratory, but gradually moved into sales and marketing. He encouraged young people to consider technical sales support positions, usually found in larger organizations, because they could serve as a resource to the product users out in the field, and the job is often a steppingstone to other roles.

Elsewhere at the Baltimore Convention Center, Steve Post, a scientist with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, gave a PhAST conference audience a rare glimpse inside the agency’s Airborne Laser Program. The goal of this program, which began in the early 1990s, is to build chemical lasers, flying on a highly modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft, that will acquire, track and kill ballistic missiles before they reach the apogee of their flight path.

Post described the airborne laser as a “megawatt-class illuminator” that saw first light in 2004, though he couldn’t say exactly how many megawatts. It’s a cw laser, but the exact amount of time that it can lase is also classified. To develop and run initial tests on the laser mounting and control systems, the team rescued an old 747 from the scrap heap for a mere $30,000. “That probably saved them two or three years of angst and suffering along the way,” he said.

September 2009 is the target date for the laser system’s first “shoot-down test,” Post said. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently changed the Airborne Laser Program from an operational system to an R&D system, but Post said that was simple recognition that there is a lot of work left to do on it.

Wednesday at CLEO-IQEC began with a well-attended plenary session at which Alain Aspect of the Institut d’Optique (France) presented a highly mathematical discussion of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox, Bell’s inequalities, and recent research into quantum computing. (I was “tweeting” the session on @OPNmagazine -- my short messages should still be archived at that site.)

Also at the plenary session, Harvard University (U.S.A.) physicist Federico Capasso surveyed the world of quantum cascade lasers, which have gone from an initial laboratory experiment to commercialization in the astonishingly short span of 15 years. Built “one atom at a time, layer by layer,” these lasers now measure greenhouse gases and nitric oxide in the atmosphere and also guard against the next explosive-bearing “shoe bomber.” And their design potential and chemical-sensing applications have still not been exhausted, Capasso concluded.

I ended Day 3 at the conference by attending a PhAST session on lasers and optics for astronomy and space-based sensing. Even though it was after 5 p.m. and the plenary session had started at 8 a.m., the room was still quite full -- our conference attendees are taking full advantage of their time here!

Astronomers Richard Dekany of Caltech (Pasadena, Calif., U.S.A.) and Craig Van Sitters of the U.S. National Science Foundation described astronomers’ requirements for laser-guide-star adaptive optics systems, which is helping the most recent generation of ground-based telescopes see better.

“Astronomers are not laser technicians,” Van Sitters noted. “They want a turnkey system that they can turn on at the start of the night and not mess with it.”

The final speaker of the session -- Michael Madden, systems engineering director for GeoEye of Dulles, Va., U.S.A. -- showed off amazing images from his company’s newest satellite, which photographs the Earth at 41-cm resolution from 681 km up. In other words, GeoEye-1 can see everything bigger than a soccer ball or home plate. His company provided the panoramic views of the crowds at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, and the satellite has joined in the search for the Air France jetliner that went down in the Atlantic Ocean a few days ago.

According to Madden, the satellite uses an ultra-fast-readout imaging array 37,000 pixels wide. He hopes that the company’s next-generation satellite, with 25-cm resolution, will launch in 2012.


2009-06 June