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Lab News photographer Randy Montoya captured this Quicktime VR image while photographing field tests NASA was conducting at Sandia's solar tower facility.

Click on the image above to see the 360-degree view from 200 feet above the New Mexico desert.

Note: You need Apple's Quicktime to view the image. You can download it for Windows or Macintosh machines from Apple's website here.


Lab News -- September 15, 2006

September 15, 2006

LabNews 09/15/2006PDF (650KB)

Solar tower testing supports future NASA missions

By Stephanie Holinka

Sandians looking skyward towards the solar tower received a bright surprise in the first week of September. NASA’s dramatic tests produced bright light, smoke, and some flames while conducting materials tests crucial to the next generation of spacecraft.

These tests continue the testing that NASA began last year. NASA’s tests are the first conducted at the top of the solar tower, where NASA contractors built special facilities designed specifically for these experiments.

NASA researchers mounted samples of advanced ablative materials on special arms on top of the solar tower and exposed them to concentrated solar radiation. Researchers tested 12” x 12” samples of an “advanced charring ablator,” pieces of heat shield that NASA hopes to include as part of a new advanced thermal protection system for aerocapture flight maneuvers, a system that NASA officials hope will save on future mission fuel costs.

The tests exposed the ablator samples to solar power levels up to 1,500 watts per square centimeter — approximately 1,500 times the intensity of the sun on Earth on a clear day. This energy simulates the high heat encountered during the aerocapture maneuver’s hypersonic flight through an atmosphere.

Cheryl Ghanbari (6218), test engineer at the solar tower, subjected the shield material to a 3,500 F solar light from the Labs’ Solar Thermal Test Facility onto sample materials.

Cheryl and her team controlled the exposure duration by using preprogrammed heliostat movement, and controlled intensity by the number of heliostats used for each test. They monitored radiation flux, or the intensity of the solar energy, using a radiometer that is exposed before and after each test.

The tests helped determine the overall effectiveness of advanced thermal protection systems, adhesives, and structure combinations for a future rigid aeroshell system.

Aeroshells are protective cases that surround some types of spacecraft. Advanced aeroshell structures and adhesives allow reduced mass for the aeroshell system, allowing more science instruments or smaller launch vehicles.

The aeroshell system and thermal protection system being studied during this series of tests are similar to those developed for past Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Earth-return missions. In January 2005, a rigid aeroshell system delivered the entry probe Huygens into the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as part of a mission jointly conducted by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana.

NASA and its contractors were pleased with the tests. “It's worked beautifully,” said Bill Congdon, manager of ARA Ablatives Laboratory into his radio after the first set of tests went better than planned. Perfect weather and expert execution allowed them to test more samples than planned. ARA, based in Colorado, makes the materials under contract to NASA. “Our goal in this test was to make sure it didn’t come apart.”

More than 100 similar tests on samples ranging from 5-inch diameter coupons to panels up to 24 inches square have been conducted during the last three years.

Bonnie James, program manager for NASA, says Sandia’s Solar Thermal Test Facility is the only place in the country where NASA can test objects of this size under such intense heat. The project planners had evaluated heat-producing facilities all over the country, including the NASA Ames facility, but determined it was difficult to find facilities that could test things “larger than a coupon,” a much smaller sample than this test required.

“This is a very unique facility with very unique capabilities,” James says. -- Stephanie Holinka

Note: For a 360-degree, interactive view from the top of the Sandia solar tower during the test, check out Lab News photographer Randy Montoya's Quicktime VR image here. You'll need Apple's latest Quicktime software to view and manipulate the image. It's available here.

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LOGIIC helps keep oil, gas control systems safe

By Michael Padilla

If $3 a gallon for gas seems high, imagine the cost consumers could face if a terrorist attack were to severely damage or cripple America’s oil and gas infrastructure.

Such an attack by viruses, worms, or other forms of cyber-terrorism on oil and gas industry process control networks and related systems could destabilize energy industry supply capabilities and negatively impact the national economy.

To help reduce the chance that such an attack could succeed, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and oil and gas companies created Project LOGIIC (Linking the Oil and Gas Industry to Improve Cyber Security). It aims to keep US oil and gas control systems safe and secure.

The LOGIIC consortium, funded by industry and the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, brought together 14 organizations to identify ways to reduce cyber vulnerabilities in process control and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. The goal of the 12-month project was to identify new types of security sensors for process control networks.

One of several related projects

LOGIIC is one of several related information infrastructure protection R&D projects — including the DOE National SCADA Test Bed and the I3P control systems security research programs being conducted by Center 5600’s Information Assurance and Survivability business area led by senior manager Gary Rivord (5610).

A Sandia-created test environment was used to counter potential threats to the oil and gas industry using hypothetical attack scenarios. Based on the knowledge gained from their industry partners, Sandia researchers created two real-time models of control systems used for refinery and pipeline operations.

Ben Cook (5634), project lead for Sandia, says the objective of LOGIIC was to bring together government, asset owners, vendors, and the research community to develop ways to better protect the critical infrastructure. He says a key element of LOGIIC’s public-private partnership model was the leadership role it gave to industry partners — in this case the oil and gas asset owners — to define the technical problem to be tackled and manage the project toward a successful outcome.

“Current control system operators have limited situational awareness,” he says. “In LOGIIC, industry leaders chose to focus the partnership team’s initial work on addressing their concern that control networks aren’t monitored for cyber intrusions as is routinely done on business networks. As a result, it’s difficult to detect cyber adversaries who might be attempting to compromise critical system components.”

The monitoring system developed in LOGIIC is based on the very latest commercial enterprise detection and correlation technologies adapted to monitor control networks, providing asset owners with dramatically improved situational awareness, Ben says.

Sandia scenarios

To test LOGIIC’s monitoring capabilities, Sandia researchers came up with five vulnerability scenarios based on cyber compromises commonly used in the hacker community. Two scenarios were extensively tested.

The first scenario highlighted the increased risk control systems are exposed to as they are increasingly connected to business networks. These networks are in turn commonly connected to the Internet.

“This provides adversaries anywhere in the world with potential access to control systems running key industrial processes like refineries,” Ben says.

Entering either through the Internet or by hacking into a local wireless network, once on the business network an adversary can compromise a computer and learn about the business and its connected networks.

“We wanted to show how someone can get from the outside all the way in through the business network down through the control system and affect a piece of equipment in the field,” says Ray Parks (5612), who led the development of the scenarios. In this role, Ray used his background as a member of Sandia’s cyber red team, which has performed numerous vulnerability assessments of oil and gas and other critical infrastructure facilities.

The second scenario showed how someone can gain physical access to the process control systems from a remote, often unmanned, field site such as a pipeline flow meter. Each pipeline has flow meters at regular intervals to measure the flow of oil or gas.

“By breaching the physical security at a field site, an adversary could potentially then gain access to the control systems network by simply plugging in their laptop,” Ben says. “Once on the control systems network, they could once again disrupt operations, or depending on their intent, they could use the access gained at the remote field site to begin navigating to other corporate networks, potentially even the business network.”

Sandia team effort

In addition to Ben and Ray, the Sandia team includes Weston Henry (5612), John Herzer (5634), and Bryan Richardson (5615).

A major focus of the project involved developing and implementing a realistic test environment at Sandia that would mimic the real system configurations typically found in the oil and gas industry. LOGIIC industry team members either donated or loaned most of the hardware and software required to set up the Sandia test bed. Bryan led this task, coordinating with the process control and network security hardware and software vendors involved in the project to get the test bed components delivered, installed, and configured for the project.

John led subsequent work involving the integration and demonstration of a commercial event correlation technology to help process control

system operators identify and deal with cybersecurity threats.

“Event correlation allows us to collect events such as messages and log entries from many different devices on the network and infer the relationships among them,” John says. “Identifying the connections among many disparate events coming into the control center allows us to filter out much of the noise, identify significant patterns, and ultimately provide the big security picture to the plant operators.”

Weston implemented the attack scenarios developed by Ray, adapting publicly available attack tools and scripting the attack scenarios, which were then executed in the test bed to evaluate the effectiveness of the monitoring and correlation solution framework.

“In LOGIIC, we were able to access industry knowledge that we don’t get from our brief site visits or assessments,” Ray says. “We were able to see the kind of detailed knowledge on how they really work, how their business processes actually happen, the shortcuts they take, what they really put together. With that information, we were

able to build a much better test and a better prototype system.”

LOGIIC partners

LOGIIC brought together experts in homeland security, oil and gas, security research, security technology, and process control technology.

Project results were shared at the LOGIIC Summit, Sept. 11, in Houston, Texas. The meeting showcased results and promoted the partnership model as a template for future public-private partnerships to improve infrastructure security. A field

test of the LOGIIC solution will begin later this year. The LOGIIC website is at

Doug Maughan, LOGIIC program manager at DHS, says 85 percent to 90 percent of the critical infrastructure in the US is in the hands of the private sector. “The success of this project is a strong example of how private industry can team with the Department of Homeland Security to further the cause of critical infrastructure protection,” he says. -- Michael Padilla

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The riddle of the desert glass

Documentary film crew seeks answers ó with help of Sandian Mark Boslough ó to origins of desert glass used in King Tutís priceless breastplate

Note: Mark Boslough’s work on collision dynamics and impact physics modeling is funded by Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The trip to study the Libyan Desert Glass provided an opportunity to gather real world physical data to reinforce computer modeling and simulation of impact events.

For a PDF version of this story, go here.

By Mark Boslough

Speeding across the vast expanse of Sahara desert sand in a four-wheel drive vehicle was not something I had thought to put on my Outlook calendar when I planned this year’s activities.

Riding in a caravan of Land Cruisers with me are two other scientists and a British film crew. Our goal is to reach the site of an unusual deposit of the purest natural silica glass ever found, covering an area bigger than Bernalillo County in the Libyan Desert of western Egypt.

It was in 1932 that British explorers in Model-A Fords first visited this part of the desert, where they discovered the mysterious yellow-green glass scattered across the surface. Ever since, Libyan Desert Glass has fascinated scientists, who have dreamed up all sorts of ideas about how it could have formed. It’s too silica-rich to be volcanic. In some ways it resembles the tektites generated by the high pressures associated with asteroid impacts. That observation is the starting point of a scientific debate that was the subject of the documentary being filmed for National Geographic and BBC.

An astonishing discovery at the Egyptian National Museum

I was chosen to participate in the role of a dissenter from the preferred explanation that the glass was formed by direct shock-melting by a crater-forming asteroid impact. I had stumbled into the debate by accident in 1996, when I attended a conference in Bologna on the subject of the 1908 explosion of an asteroid or comet that knocked down nearly a thousand square miles of trees in Siberia. I stayed an extra day to attend a meeting about the desert glass, where I argued that similar — but larger — atmospheric explosions could create fireballs that would be large and hot enough to fuse surface materials to glass, much like the first atomic explosion generated green glass at the Trinity site in 1945.

Shortly after that workshop, one of the Italian organizers made a discovery that raised public interest in the subject. Vincenzo de Michele visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and noticed that one of King Tutankhamun’s jeweled breastplates contained a carved scarab that looked suspiciously like a piece of the glass. A simple optical measurement confirmed the match in 1998. The connection of a catastrophic explosion with the treasures of ancient Egypt eventually became a sure-fire formula for a documentary to be called “Tutankhamun’s Fireball.”

Did I want to be part of this?

Last December, when I was first asked by the producer to be interviewed for the documentary I was a little skeptical. After all, television is known more for sensationalization than for scientific accuracy, and the King Tut connection had fueled pseudoscientific speculation on the web. One website even presents fanciful “Evidence for Ancient Atomic War,” making the case that Egyptians had detonated nuclear weapons (but ignoring the fact that the glass is 29 million years old). Did I want to be part of this?

Fortunately, I was assured by other scientists that this would be a legitimate documentary that would focus on natural explanations for this enigmatic glass.

Then, just before the holidays, the producer asked if I would join a scientific expedition to the site, along with an Egyptian geologist and an Austrian colleague who

specializes in geochemistry of shocked materials. Six weeks later, I found myself in Cairo with Dr. de Michele, getting a firsthand look at King Tut’s glass scarab and preparing for nine days in the desert.

1,000 km over the Great Sand Sea

Our jumping-off point was the Bahariya Oasis, a large valley of villages and adobe houses that (except for the date palms) looked a little bit like those of old New Mexico. After the 300-km drive on a two-lane highway through the lifeless desert, the irrigated fields were startlingly green — the last green we would see for some time.

Leaving the road at the last checkpoint, we embark on a 1,000-km voyage across the Great Sand Sea. Despite the lack of water, that name is apt. Like mariners, we don’t follow a specified route. We are guided by the sun, compasses, dead-reckoning, and (like modern sailors) GPS. If the dunes are the swells of the open ocean, our first day’s trip is an excursion though a field of icebergs. Towering monuments, hoodoos, and mesas of stark white limestone provide a maze through which we meander, opening up to a featureless flat sand plain.

Our Egyptian outfitter, his French partner, and the local drivers and crew make this trip several times every year. They keep records of their GPS tracks and plot them on satellite images downloaded from the web. They never repeat the same route, but offset their trips by enough distance that they explore parts of the desert that have never been crossed before.

When there is something dark on top of the sand, our guides always slow down to look. There are only a few things it could be. Most common are ordinary looking stones, often worked and chipped, and probably carried by the Neolithic inhabitants who lived here when it was a savanna. Sometimes, the waste is more modern: old oil cans or discarded vehicle parts from a long-ago expedition. Occasionally it will be a dead migratory bird; a stork or a crane that didn’t make it. The naturally occurring geological finds are the most exciting. Several times we find fulgurites, sand that is fused into worm-like shapes by lightning strikes. Our best find is a meteorite, a large stone that had probably been sitting on the sand for millennia, covered and uncovered countless times over the ages.

Tea brewed Bedouin-style over an apricot wood fire

February in the Sahara is cool, and the wind blows so hard on the Great Sand Sea that it can be hazy like a marine fog. Every night our guides park their vehicles in the shape of a U, open to the east, with exotic rugs for windbreaks and comfortable sleeping for the crew (the scientists and film crew sleep Western-style, in dome tents). We have our meals here, with sugar-saturated tea brewed Bedouin-style over an open flame of apricot wood carried from the orchards of Bahariya.

As we progress to the southwest, the rolling sand builds to great seif dunes and the sea rises. Vehicles frequently get stuck and have to be rescued by digging and driving up special aluminum ramps. It takes a special sailor’s eye to distinguish between a safe hard surface and the treacherous soft sand, especially at 100 km/hour. Driving against the grain of the dunes means rising over the crests and dropping down the other side, over and over for hours: speeding, digging, rising, dropping. Arabic, French, and English conversations crackle over the radio, and throbbing Egyptian music plays on the driver’s iPod.

Just before we reach the site of the glass, the dunes become linear — unbroken parallel ranges running north-south for hundreds of kilometers. Here we must carefully pick our crossings, and then we run at high speed southward in the “corridors,” the freeways that have been used by nomads for centuries (as evidenced by 100-year-old camel skeletons).

The riddle remains, but friendships endure

On our third day after leaving the last road, our maps tell us we are within the area where glass has been found. We stop to look. There are pieces of sandstone everywhere, and no plants in sight. It looks strikingly like the surface of Mars, and sand sifts underfoot. The first bits of glass we find are yellow-green jewels that have smooth surfaces sculpted by the incessant wind. We hold them up to the sun to see how the light refracts and scatters. This is probably what the Pharaohs did with their piece, and the Neolithic people before them.

Nine days of geologic exploration and discussion bore fruit. You get to know your colleagues well during long days driving and long nights in camp. Everyone figures out the strengths and weaknesses in one another’s ideas. It would be premature to claim that we solved the mystery, but new friendships and collaborations have emerged, and renewed interest in this scientific mystery has energized debate over this unique glass. -- Mark Boslough

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