Preventing Nuclear War: New instruments detect nuclear detonations

Today, nuclear threats around the world are very real risks to global security. Reducing threats of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism are critical to our national security. Los Alamos National Laboratory, a leader in nuclear science and national security, is at the forefront of nonproliferation via multilateral research across the Lab: satellite explosion monitoring, intelligent sensors, worldwide materials detection and protection, bioscience radiation research, and ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

One prominent Lab method that protects the world detects nuclear explosions in atmosphere and space.

The world is full of nuclear-weapons knowledge and materials, providing many terrorists with the ability to make weapons. While many nuclear sensors exist worldwide, they are frequently incapable of distinguishing millions of natural events and background data-lightning flashes, cosmic collisions-from a true nuclear signal. Lightning strikes the earth approximately 100 times per second, confusing traditional detectors.

Ground-based supercomputers and human analysts might be capable of the critical but confusing task, but Los Alamos scientists and engineers have built intelligent instruments that can rapidly assess data in space-making nuclear detonation detection faster, easier and more accurate. The Lab's Satellite Nuclear Detonation Detection (SNDD) program team members also used advanced technology to make instruments smaller, lighter, inexpensive, and highly adaptable to different host satellites.

Detecting nuclear explosions is a difficult task. The surface area of the Earth is more than half a billion square kilometers; with atmosphere tacked on, there are about 50 billion cubic kilometers to monitor. New technologies, including the current system of 24 Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, provide complete coverage that also increases troublesome background data.

The SNDD program's exceptional talent combines extensive knowledge of nuclear physics, engineering, space weather, computation, atmospheric and planetary sciences. The group developed strong ties with NASA, universities, and dozens of other institutions to lead the way in reducing threats. For example, Los Alamos Fellow Ed Fenimore designed the gamma-ray trigger for nuclear-event detection and designed the sensor that alerts NASA's SWIFT satellite of a gamma-ray burst.

Marc Kippen, SNDD x-ray instrumentation Project Leader, and histeam developed the combined x-ray spectrometer and particle dosimeter (CXD) by using advanced technology to integrate the two instruments into a single, more-capable x-ray sensor system. The particle detectors monitor the space environment and the system provides intelligent nuclear detection data. Another team, led by Dave Smith of the Lab's Space and Remote Sensing group, engineered a next-generation electromagnetic pulse sensor-the burst detector-verification (BDV) sensor-that will carry a huge amount of computation and data storage compared with its predecessors.

The SNDD's newest instrument, built by Eric Dors' team, is the space and atmospheric burst reporting system (SABRS), a highly modular package for detecting neutrons and gamma rays. It combines the 10 instruments on a satellite into one compact package that consumes less power, and weighs half as much as the old suite of instruments. Employing advanced on-board signal processing, SABRS autonomously evaluates a signal.

Consequences of a nuclear bomb explosion are high. Los Alamos National Laboratory's experts play a key role in preventing a nuclear war.

Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory