News

December 14, 2012

Sandia’s Kauai Test Facility celebrates 50 years of rocket launches

Over the past 50 years, Sandia's Kauai Test Facility has launched more than 430 rockets. The facility supports the DoD Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Test Program, the Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program, and other Navy flight test programs.

by Heather Clark

Lee Stone traveled a quarter mile beyond the paved road’s end 50 years ago toward about 15 white trailers along a raised concrete platform surrounded by sand dunes on the western tip of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

The 31-year-old telemetry and electronics specialist was bringing equipment to the newly established Barking Sands Rocket Complex, where he saw the first Kauai Test Facility launch of a Nike Apache diagnostic rocket to measure radiation from a Strypi rocket taking off from Johnston Atoll during Operation Dominic in 1962.

Lee’s first recollection of Sandia’s new rocket launch site was the sand dunes. “They started just bulldozing, shoving things around and pouring concrete, and they brought in 22 Nike-Ajax launchers,” he says. Originally, the site was surveyed for 40 launch pads.

Fifty years later, Lee donned an honorary lei and joined dozens of Sandia employees, contractors, military personnel, customers, and political representatives to celebrate Kauai Test Facility’s 50th anniversary.

KTF was established after an unwelcome Cold War surprise. On Sept. 1, 1961, the Soviet Union began full-scale atmospheric nuclear tests, conducting 45 tests in two months despite the Nuclear Testing Moratorium of 1958 that slowed rocket research.

“The United States was caught, frankly, flat footed,” David Keese, director of Integrated Military Systems Center 5400, told those gathered. “We didn’t have any nuclear device carriers that could launch those into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, we didn’t have any sampling rockets so we could sample those effects, and we didn’t have a launch facility that could do all that.”

So, the then-Atomic Energy Commission created the Barking Sands Rocket Complex and in less than a year the US completed its first high-altitude nuclear test, David said. KTF’s original name came from the sound underfoot of the fine coral sand nearby.

That first year, Sandia launched diagnostic rockets to measure the effects of Operation Dominic air bursts and Dominic Fishbowl high-altitude tests.

Lee recalled his early days at KTF when he worked 14 to 16 hours a day and rockets took off between midnight and 4 a.m.

“Back in those days it was still tubes, not transistors,” he says. He had to warm up the equipment for about a half hour, but still “the tubes would drift in frequency, so every now and then we would tweak the receivers to make sure they were getting the best signal.”

Over the past 50 years, KTF has launched more than 430 rockets. The facility supports the DoD Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Test Program, the Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program, and other Navy flight test programs.

During this period, the relationship between the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) and KTF has become intertwined.

PMRF’s executive officer, Cmdr. Garron Morris, said, “KTF is more a part of the PMRF team than a tenant at PMRF.”

Eric Hedlund, test director of the Aegis BMD Program, talked about the development of KTF’s work on missile defense. In 1995, two Strypi missiles launched from KTF proved that Aegis could detect, track, and engage medium-range ballistic missiles. Over the past 17 years, KTF has launched more than 50 rockets to support missile defense tests, Hedlund said.

“Without the facility, the instrumentation, and especially the people and expertise here, we would not have been a successful program,” Hedlund said, later adding in an interview, “When we developed the instrumentation over the past 10 years, we made sure there wasn’t duplicate equipment at both facilities. It was all complementary instrumentation. If you take away PMRF, KTF can’t survive and if you take away KTF, PMRF can’t survive. It’s a synergistic relationship.”

The celebration included the Hawaiian culture. Margaret Scheffer (5419) made leis for Lee and other honored guests. And Tom Takahashi, known as Uncle Tom, blessed KTF on its anniversary.

“Sandia is celebrating 50 years on this ground . . .  there are another 50 more years to go,” he said. “I ask the Heavenly Father to bless this place, to bless these people.”

David ended the ceremony with thanks to the two dozen Sandia employees and Kauai-based contractors who oversee KTF’s daily operations.

“You can have the best building, radar, telemetry, and missile system in the world, but if you don’t have the people, then you don’t have much at all,” David said. “I want to say thank you to our folks here on this integral team for all the good service they have done over the past years and the good service we expect them to render over the next 50 years.”

-- Heather Clark

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Airborne pods seek to trace nuclear bombs’ origins

Sandia researchers prepare pods that, airborne, will track radiation to its source and analyze particulates and gasses to identify a nuclear bomb's origin. In foreground, Eduardo Padilla (in short-sleeve shirt) and Chisom Wilson (on one knee in running shoes) tune up the directional gamma radiation sensor (DGRS) pod. Scott Davison works by himself on the particulate sampling pod, while Joe Sanders (back left) inspects the Whole Air Sampling Pod (WASP). (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Neal Singer

If a nuclear device were to unexpectedly detonate anywhere on Earth, the ensuing effort to attribute the weapon to its maker probably would be led by aircraft rapidly collecting radioactive particles for forensic analysis.

Relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — equipped with radiation sensors and specialized debris-samplers — could fly right down the throat of telltale radiation over a broad range of altitudes without exposing a human crew to hazards.

This capability is far from fiction. In late September, a Sandia-developed airborne particulate-collection system demonstrated its capabilities in the blue skies above an Air Force base in Grand Forks, N.D. Dubbed “Harvester” for obvious reasons, the system “tasted” the atmosphere by using two particulate sampling pods to gather information. A third pod would provide directional guidance for a real event by following the trail of gamma radiation.

The three pods, with additional hardware, software, and ground-control equipment, are expected take their place on aircraft in the Air Force’s investigatory arsenal by 2014.

When they do so, they will have traversed the infamous technological “Valley of Death,” in which many promising R&D ideas die before reaching production.

The successful Grand Forks demonstration was part of a formal Department of Defense (DoD) Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) that mated the Harvester modular pods to the long wings of a Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection-provided MQ-9 Reaper UAV. (The Reaper is a more powerful cousin of the better-known Predator.) 

While the recent tests did not include any radioisotope releases, the pods were able to collect and identify naturally occurring radioisotopes of lead and bismuth produced from the radioactive decay of atmospheric radon. In addition, radioactive beryllium-7 produced from cosmic ray spallation of naturally occurring carbon-14 also showed up on the filters after the flight, providing a uniform measure for debris distribution.

The modular pods eliminate the need for costly, permanent aircraft modifications that would limit the number of aircraft platforms on which Harvester can be flown.

 “There’s a high likelihood the Air Force will make Harvester operational in 2014 to augment its current manned aircraft collection capability,” says project lead Joe Sanders (5943). “For maximum responsiveness, we continually engaged with the Air Force to address its technological and operational needs throughout the project.”

The Harvester’s Directional Gamma Radiation Sensor (DGRS) helps guide the aircraft toward the radioactive plume using four large sodium iodide radiation detectors and a complex processing algorithm. The pilot, located far away in a UAV ground control station, is informed by the Harvester equipment operator to fly toward the plume’s “hot spot.” 

“The operator will see a vector that shows peak plume intensity up and to the right, let’s say,” says Joe. “It’s the equivalent of a guide saying, ‘You’re getting warmer.’”

Air passes through the samplers, each about the size of a small snowmobile, as the Reaper cruises at 200 mph. This rams particles into filter paper like light hitting a photographic plate, causing the particles to get stuck in the filter fibers. A separate radiation sensor analyzes the filter in realtime to estimate the type and quantity of radioactive particles collected. More extensive examination of the filters occurs after the aircraft has landed.

Because gas analysis can complement particle analysis, Sandia is developing a third type of pod called the Whole Air Sampling Pod (WASP) to demonstrate the feasibility of collecting multiple, large-volume air samples that can be analyzed for radioactive gases. Radioxenons (radioisotopes of the noble gas xenon), if detected, can provide a tell-tale indication of a nuclear detonation.

“While not small, the 9-foot-long, 650-pound WASP is designed to be compatible with an MQ-9 Reaper UAV,” says Joe. “WASP has not yet been flight-tested, but has performed well in the laboratory, and the DoD’s interest in modular gas sampling is growing. We look forward to demonstrating the WASP technology and expect that it will also cross the Valley of Death.”

Sandia developed Harvester with support from the Albuquerque office of National Technical Systems, an engineering firm. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Nonproliferation Research and Development funded the early R&D phase. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Rapid Fielding Office as part of the JCTD funded the later development and qualification phase.

-- Neal Singer

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Cyanobacteria: Engineering an alternative fuel source

SANDIA TRUMAN FELLOW Anne Ruffing looks at a flask of cyanobacteria with precipitated fatty acid floating on top. She has engineered two strains of cyanobacteria to produce free fatty acids, a precursor to fuels, as she studies the direct conversion of carbon dioxide into biofuels by photosynthetic organisms. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Sue Major Holmes

Sandia Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing has engineered two strains of cyanobacteria to produce free fatty acids, a precursor to fuels, but she’s also found that production harms the organisms themselves, cutting into their production potential.

Micro-algal fuels might be one way to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign energy. Such fuels would be renewable since they use sunlight for energy. They also could help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions since they use photosynthesis and could create jobs in a new industry. President Barack Obama, speaking in February at the University of Miami, cited investments to develop fuels from algae, saying they could replace up to 17 percent of the oil the United States now imports for transportation, which depends on liquid fuel.

“Even if algae are not the end-term solution, I think they can contribute to getting us there,” Anne (8622) says. “Regardless of however you look at fossil fuels, they’re eventually going to run out. We have to start looking to the future now and doing research that’s needed to be ready when the time comes.”

Anne has been studying the direct conversion of carbon dioxide into biofuels by photosynthetic organisms under a three-year Truman Fellowship that ends in January. She presented her project at a poster session in August and published her work on one strain, “Physiological Effects of Free Fatty Acid Production in Genetically Engineered Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942,” as the cover article in the September 2012 issue of Biotechnology and Bioengineering.

Studies are proof of concept

Anne considers her studies as proof-of-concept work that demonstrates engineering cyanobacteria for free fatty acid (FFA) production and excretion. She wants to identify the best hydrocarbon targets for fuel production and the best model strain for genetic engineering, as well as gene targets to improve FFA production.

She is working with cyanobacteria — blue-green algae — because they’re easier to genetically manipulate than eukaryotic algae, the natural “oil”-producing photosynthetic microorganisms more commonly used for algal biofuels, and because they can be engineered to create a variety of target fuels. Genetically engineered cyanobacteria excrete FFA and allow fuel to be collected without harvesting the cyanobacteria. This lowers the requirement for nitrogen and phosphate and reduces costs.

But current yields from engineered strains are too low for large-scale production.

Anne favors cyanobacteria because fuel from engineered cyanobacteria is excreted outside the cell, in contrast to eukaryotic algae, in which fuel production occurs inside the cell.

Here’s the general process: Eukaryotic algae grow in a pond to the density needed, then producers must get rid of the water, collect the cells, and break them open to get the fuel precursor inside. This precursor is isolated and purified, then chemically converted into biodiesel. Cyanobacteria excrete the fuel precursor outside the cell, so a separation process can remove the product without killing the cells. That eliminates the need to grow a new batch of algae each time, saving on nitrogen and phosphate.

While other research efforts have focused on metabolic engineering strategies to boost production, Anne wants to identify what physiological effects limit cell growth and FFA synthesis.

“You can’t really hope to continue to engineer it to produce more of the fatty acids until you address these unforeseen effects,” Anne says. “As much as you want to do the applied side of things, creating the strain, you can’t get away from the fundamental understanding that’s necessary in order to do that.”

The strains she engineered for FFA production show reduced photosynthetic yields, degradation of chlorophyll-a and changes in light-harvesting pigments, Anne says. She saw some cell death and lower growth rates overall, and suspects the toxicity of unsaturated FFA and changes in membrane composition are responsible.

Creating mutants

Now she’s looking at what genes are changing when cyanobacteria produce fatty acids. She’s creating mutants by knocking out certain genes or introducing or overexpressing genes to see how that affects the cell and fatty acid production.

“So I’m engineering the cell, then I’m trying to learn from the cell and find ways to work with the cell to produce the fuel instead of trying to force it to produce something it doesn’t want to produce,” Anne says.

Much of our fundamental understanding of photosynthesis comes from cyanobacteria, but it’s only been in the past decade or so, with advances in gene manipulation and recombinant DNA technology, that they’ve been considered for fuel production, Anne says.

She’s producing FFA from Synechococcus elongatus PCC 7942 and Synechococcus sp. PCC 7002, chosen as so-called model organisms that have been studied for several decades and for which tools exist to manipulate their genes. The work with 7942 is complete and published, but she’s still constructing and testing 7002. She also is working with the two strains and a third, Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803, for biofuel toxicity screening.

She hopes to continue working on strain development after the fellowship ends.

“It is possible that maybe some other strain that’s out there that’s a natural strain could be a better option, so this is still pretty early on,” she says. “There’s a lot of exploration to do.”

-- Sue Major Holmes

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