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How this local company helped Apollo 11 set course for GPS technology
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The core team that was responsible for the production of the Lunar Laser Retro-Reflector’s triple prisms gather in the Heraeus fused silica plant in Hanau, Germany. The photo was taken in 1968. (Courtesy Heraeus Global Commercial Optics)

The Apollo 11 moon landing isn’t the only technological feat that has a 50th birthday on Saturday. 

The Lunar Laser Retro-Reflector, which was produced by Heraeus and Bendix Corporation, has remained on the moon since the 1969 mission. 

Heraeus, which has a manufacturing location in Buford, still produces the materials used in the moon’s retro-reflector. 

Todd Jaeger, global sales director at Heraeus Comvance in Buford and former NASA research scientist, said the product is composed of unadulterated silicon dioxide. 

“The goal was for it to last 10 years and 50 years later, it’s still working,” Todd Jaeger said. “Fused silica is honestly one of the purest substances ever made by man.”

People can thank James Faller for the Lunar Laser Retro-Reflector, which he conceived and developed as a physics graduate student at Princeton University in the late ‘50s. 

Jaeger said Faller’s experiment set the course for GPS technology development, allowing people to measure the distance between Earth and the moon “so accurately, down to about the width of a paper clip.”

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Triple prisms were used for the retro-reflector of the Apollo 11 mission, which still work 50 years later. (Courtesy Heraeus Global Commercial Optics)

The experiment, which was deployed by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, helped scientists better grasp the gravitational forces interconnecting the orbits of the Earth, sun and moon. All of which prove crucial in GPS technology.

“I think possibly we could’ve gotten to GPS eventually, but I don’t think it would’ve occurred nearly as quickly as it did,” Jaeger said. “All of these satellites for communication, the ones that will be used for 5G, it’s questionable whether those could or would be able to function now.”

By the time Faller proposed his experiment, Jaeger said scientists had discovered ways to calculate distance with lasers. However, the  moon’s uneven surface, added error to the measurement values.

“The moon isn’t going in a perfect circular orbit anyway, and if you’re bouncing it off the rim of a crater versus the inside of one of those craters, the distance is quite a bit different,” Jaeger said. Faller proposed placing a lightweight, durable reflector on the moon, which would be targeted by the laser beam. 

Jaeger said the equipment would detect the laser and reflect the light back to earth. The travel time would then be calculated to come up with a precise distance from the Earth to the moon. 

The Lunar Laser Retro-Reflector contains no ordinary mirrors. Jaeger said it consists of three perpendicular surfaces, allowing the light to bounce off and turn back in the direction in which it came from.

Fused silica, the material selected for the equipment, is made through burning a silicon-containing gas in a hydrogen and oxygen flame. The silicon bonds with the oxygen and deposits pure silicon dioxide. 

Jaeger said the material can withstand high amounts of laser energy, radiation and doesn’t degrade over time.

“It’s the only continuously functioning piece of equipment left from the Apollo missions,” he said. “They’re still doing measurements off this today.”

Looking toward the future of Heraeus, Jaeger said the company will produce materials for a new set of GPS satellites, which will be launched in the next five to 10 years for the U.S. government. He said the satellites have Laser Retro-Reflectors built into them to communicate with each other in space, measure the distance between satellites and calculate the distance relative to ground stations. 

“The military will have advantages and it allows for better mapping of the planet,” Jaeger said. 

For more information about Heraeus, visit heraeus.com

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Buzz Aldrin carries the Lunar Laser Retro-Reflector while walking on the moon. (Courtesy Heraeus Global Commercial Optics)
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