A tunable quantum-cascade (QC) laser has been flown on NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude aircraft to produce the first atmospheric gas measurements with this newly invented device, an important milestone in the QC laser’s future planetary, industrial, and commercial applications. Using a cryogenically cooled QC laser during a series of 20 aircraft flights beginning in September 1999 and extending through March 2000, we took measurements of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) gas up to ∼20 km in the stratosphere over North America, Scandinavia, and Russia. The QC laser operating near an 8-µm wavelength was produced by the groups of Capasso and Cho of Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, where QC lasers were invented in 1994. Compared with its companion lead salt diode lasers that were also flown on these flights, the single-mode QC laser cooled to 82 K and produced higher output power (10 mW), narrower laser linewidth (17 MHz), increased measurement precision (a factor of 3), and better spectral stability (∼0.1 cm-1 K). The sensitivity of the QC laser channel was estimated to correspond to a minimum-detectable mixing ratio for methane of approximately 2 parts per billion by volume.
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