We investigate the performance of a general multiconjugate adaptive optics (MCAO) system in which signals from multiple reference beacons are used to drive several deformable mirrors in the optical beam train. Taking an analytic approach that yields a detailed view of the effects of low-order aberration modes defined over the metapupil, we show that in the geometrical optics approximation, N deformable mirrors conjugated to different ranges can be driven to correct these modes through order N with unlimited isoplanatic angle, regardless of the distribution of turbulence along the line of sight. We find, however, that the optimal deformable mirror shapes are functions of target range, so the best compensation for starlight is in general not the correction that minimizes the wave-front aberration in a laser guide beacon. This introduces focal anisoplanatism in the wave-front measurements that can be overcome only through the use of beacons at several ranges. We derive expressions for the number of beacons required to sense the aberration to arbitrary order and establish necessary and sufficient conditions on their geometry for both natural and laser guide stars. Finally, we derive an expression for the residual uncompensated error by mode as a function of field angle, target range, and MCAO system geometry.
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