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The design and use of optical interferometers. Optical interferometers based on both two-beam interference and multiple-beam interference of light are extremely powerful tools for metrology and spectroscopy. A wide variety of measurements can be performed, ranging from determining the shape of a surface to an accuracy of less than a millionth of an inch (25 nanometers) to determining the separation, by millions of kilometers, of binary stars. In spectroscopy, interferometry can be used to determine the hyperfine structure of spectrum lines. By using lasers in classical interferometers as well as holographic interferometers and speckle interferometers, it is possible to perform deformation, vibration, and contour measurements of diffuse objects that could not previously be performed. There are two basic classes of interferometers: division of wavefront and division of amplitude.

Michelson interferometer

The Michelson interferometer (Fig. 1) is based on division of amplitude. Light from an extended source S is incident on a partially reflecting plate (beam splitter) P1. The light transmitted through P1 reflects off mirror M1 back to plate P1. The light which is reflected proceeds to M2 which reflects it back to P1. At P1, the two waves are again partially reflected and partially transmitted, and a portion of each wave proceeds to the receiver R, which may be a screen, a photocell, or a human eye. Depending on the difference between the distances from the beam splitter to the mirrors M1 and M2, the two beams will interfere constructively or destructively. Plate P2 compensates for the thickness of P1.

Michelson interferometerenlarge picture
Michelson interferometer

The function of the beam splitter is to superimpose (image) one mirror onto the other. When the mirrors' images are completely parallel, the interference fringes appear circular. If the mirrors are slightly inclined about a vertical axis, vertical fringes are formed across the field of view. These fringes can be formed in white light if the path difference in part of the field of view is made zero. Just as in other interference experiments, only a few fringes will appear in white light.

Twyman-Green interferometer

If the Michelson interferometer is used with a point source instead of an extended source, it is called a Twyman-Green interferometer. The use of the laser as the light source for the Twyman-Green interferometer has made it an extremely useful instrument for testing optical components. The great advantage of a laser source is that it makes it possible to obtain bright, good-contrast, interference fringes even if the path lengths for the two arms of the interferometer are quite different. See Laser

The Twyman-Green interferometer can be used to test a flat mirror. In this case, M1 in Fig. 1 is a reference surface and M2 is the flat surface being tested. If the test surface is perfectly flat, then straight, equally spaced fringes are obtained. Departure from the straight, equally spaced condition shows directly how the surface differs from being perfectly flat. A height change of half a wavelength will cause an optical path change of one wavelength and a deviation from fringe straightness of one fringe. Thus, the fringes give surface height information, just as a topographical map gives height or contour information.

The basic Twyman-Green interferometer can be modified to test concave-spherical mirrors. In the interferometer, the center of curvature of the surface under test is placed at the focus of a high-quality diverger lens so that the wavefront is reflected back onto itself. Likewise, a convex-spherical mirror can be tested. Also, if a high-quality spherical mirror is used, the high-quality diverger lens can be replaced with the lens to be tested.

Fizeau interferometer

One of the most commonly used interferometers in optical metrology is the Fizeau interferometer, which can be thought of as a folded Twyman-Green interferometer. In the Fizeau, the two surfaces being compared, which can be flat, spherical, or aspherical, are placed in close contact. The light reflected off these two surfaces produces interference fringes. For each fringe, the separation between the two surfaces is a constant. If the two surfaces match, straight, equally spaced fringes result. Surface height variations between the two surfaces cause the fringes to deviate from straightness or equal separation.

Mach-Zehnder interferometer

The Mach-Zehnder interferometer (Fig. 2) is a variation of the Michelson interferometer and, like the Michelson interferometer, depends on amplitude splitting of the wavefront. Light enters the instrument and is reflected and transmitted by the semitransparent mirror M1. The reflected portion proceeds to M3, where it is reflected through the cell C2 to the semitransparent mirror M4. Here it combines with the light transmitted by M1 to produce interference. The light transmitted by M1 passes through a cell C1, similar to C2, and is used to compensate for the windows of C2. The major application of this instrument is in studying airflow around models of aircraft, missiles, or projectiles.

Mach-Zehnder interferometerenlarge picture
Mach-Zehnder interferometer

Shearing interferometers

In a lateral-shear interferometer a wavefront is interfered with a shifted version of itself. A bright fringe is obtained at the points where the slope of the wavefront times the shift between the two wavefronts is equal to an integer number of wavelengths. That is, for a given fringe the slope or derivative of the wavefront is a constant. For this reason a lateral-shear interferometer is often called a differential interferometer. Another type of shearing interferometer is a radial-shear interferometer. Here, a wavefront is interfered with an expanded version of itself. This interferometer is sensitive to radial slopes.

Michelson stellar interferometer

A Michelson stellar interferometer can be used to measure the diameter of stars which are as small as 0.01 second of arc. This task is impossible with a ground-based optical telescope since the atmosphere limits the resolution of the largest telescope to not much better than 1 second of arc.

Fabry-Perot interferometer

All the interferometers discussed above are two-beam interferometers. The Fabry-Perot interferometer is a multiple-beam interferometer since the two glass plates are partially silvered on the inner surfaces, and the incoming wave is multiply reflected between the two surfaces. The position of the fringe maxima is the same for multiple beam interference as two-beam interference; however, as the reflectivity of the two surfaces increases and the number of interfering beams increases, the fringes become sharper.

Holographic interferometry

A wave recorded in a hologram is effectively stored for future reconstruction and use. Holographic interferometry is concerned with the formation and interpretation of the fringe pattern which appears when a wave, generated at some earlier time and stored in a hologram, is later reconstructed and caused to interfere with a comparison wave. It is the storage or time-delay aspect which gives the holographic method a unique advantage over conventional optical interferometry. See Holography

Speckle interferometry

A random intensity distribution, called a speckle pattern, is generated when light from a highly coherent source, such as a laser, is scattered by a rough surface. The use of speckle patterns in the study of object displacements, vibration, and distortion is becoming of more importance in the nondestructive testing of mechanical components. See Speckle

Phase-shifting interferometry

Electronic phase-measurement techniques can be used in interferometers such as the Twyman-Green, where the phase distribution across the interferogram is being measured. Phase-shifting interferometry is often used for these measurements since it provides for rapid precise measurement of the phase distribution. In phase-shifting interferometry, the phase of the reference beam in the interferometer is made to vary in a known manner. This can be achieved, for example, by mounting the reference mirror on a piezoelectric transducer. By varying the voltage on the transducer, the reference mirror is moved a known amount to change the phase of the reference beam a known amount. A solid-state detector array is used to detect the intensity distribution across the interference pattern. This intensity distribution is read into computer memory three or more times, and between each intensity measurement the phase of the reference beam is changed a known amount. From these three or more intensity measurements, the phase across the interference pattern can be determined to within a fraction of a degree.


The design and use of optical inferometers; uses include precise measurement of wavelength, measurement of very small distances and thicknesses, study of hyperfine structure of spectral lines, precise measurement of indices of refraction, and determination of separations of binary stars and diameters of very large stars.
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