skip to: onlinetools | mainnavigation | content | footer
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Engineering the Information Age:

The Founding Fathers

As part of its observation of National Engineers Week (Feb. 18-24), the Lab Newsasked Sandia engineer and local historian John Taylor to write about some of the notable contributions engineers have made to our way of life.

John chose to write about the Information Age, but from a unique perspective: In his story, John tells us about the founding fathers of the age, beginning with a most significant breakthrough by a eunuch in the court of Chinese Han Dynasty Emperor Ho Ti almost 2,000 years ago.

Click on the image above to open a the PDF file that tells the story. (Adobe Acrobat Reader required.)


Lab News -- March 2, 2007

March 2, 2007

LabNews 03/02/2007PDF (650KB)

Global nuclear detonation detection system keeps watch on the world 24/7/365

By John German

The next time a nuclear detonation occurs in space or in Earth’s atmosphere, enlisted men and women in US Air Force ground stations will be the first to know.

As data from dozens of satellites flood into their control rooms, it will be these operators’ jobs to decide quickly whether to refer the event to higher-ups as a violation of international law or to designate the event as something less nefarious — a lightning strike or, perhaps, a satellite sensor glitch.

The snap decisions they make could trigger an international diplomatic crisis or, if they are wrong, result in an embarrassing false alarm.

Fortunately, the data will be processed, and their decisions simplified, by ICADS — the Integrated Correlation and Display System, created for the Air Force by Sandia.

ICADS is a key part of the US Nuclear Detonation (NuDet) Detection System (USNDS), a network of Global Positioning System and Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, multiple detectors on board each satellite, and a handful of fixed and mobile ground stations.

“In some scenarios a nuclear proliferator or terrorist group might detonate a device in a way that makes it difficult to assign blame,” says John Williams, Sandia senior manager for USNDS Program Office 5740.

In that case, he says, US policy makers would need accurate real-time information about the time, location, yield, and any other evidence available via USNDS.

With budding nuclear programs in at least two nations — Iran and North Korea — USNDS may be called upon at any time to gather the facts about a modern nuclear detonation that could change the course of history (see “Sandia has long history supporting USNDS” at right).

“USNDS may be more important than ever to strategic national security,” says Jerry McDowell, VP for Defense Systems & Assessments. “The threats are real, and USNDS provides critical global awareness.”

Real-time reporting

ICADS includes the antennae, hardware, and software that help gather, correlate, and make sense of USNDS satellite data.

The system allows operators to quickly compare live satellite signals with hundreds of event profiles in its event database. Certain atmospheric phenomena — lightning, solar storms, and even pings to a satellite by energetic micrometeorite particles — can cause energy disturbances that register on the sensors.

“This is a complex, data-rich environment,” says John. “It would take a very long time to integrate, correlate, and assess the signals from dozens of sensors. But US decision makers need answers immediately. The analysis provided by ICADS before an operator ever sees the data helps make real-time interpretation possible.”

When a signal is verified by detectors aboard multiple satellites and bears the pulse waveform signature characteristic of a nuclear event, the operators refer the event up the national command structure, including the US State Department.

Rare commitment

Last year Sandia delivered ICADS IIF, the latest USNDS military ground station system, including more than a million lines of custom software code and an emphasis on human-computer interface, which makes the job of interpreting ICADS data more intuitive. (IIF signifies the next generation of GPS satellites; the first GPS IIF bird is scheduled for launch in 2009.)

The $188 million Sandia ICADS IIF program was unusual in its size and complexity. It was delivered fully qualified, under budget, and on time based on a delivery date set half a decade earlier — a rarity for a large military software development program, says Sandia ICADS project manager Don Rountree (5740).

“A program this complex is almost expected to fall behind schedule,” says Jerry. “To keep the promise we made back in 2000 required an incredible level of dedication by hundreds of people.”

The program also required a broad spectrum of Sandia expertise, he says, from atmospheric phenomenology and high-energy physics to software development and systems engineering.

24/7 support

Sandians continue to support the USNDS program. Technical experts at Sandia and Los Alamos national labs are on pager call around the clock to assist the Air Force with satellite and ground station troubleshooting.

They also provide second opinions regarding Air Force analysis of “zoo events” — unusual data signatures that don’t match existing event profiles. And Sandians train the Air Force ICADS trainers, who in turn train the ICADS operators.

In addition, under NNSA nonproliferation funding, Sandia is working on the next generation of lighter-weight, smaller global burst detectors to fly aboard the GPS IIF and a planned new series of DSP and GPS III satellites. Continued ICADS development to support the new satellite systems is under way as well.

“USNDS is a long-term commitment for us,” says John. -- John German

Top of page

Swarmy the robot: An innovative solution to clean in tight spaces

By Stephanie Holinka

A recycled swarm robot is being put to work in Tech Area 5, scraping sludge from an old tank too deeply buried and small for workers to safely reach.

Swarmy the robot could be an inexpensive answer to a cleanup problem that has evaded solution for several months.

In November 2005, a problem was discovered with an old wastewater tank in Tech Area 5. The tank, designed to collect process drain waste prior to sampling, analysis, and discharge, was found to have leaked some 4,000 gallons of water.

Originally built to support reactor operations for the Sandia Engineering Reactor in the early 1960s, the tank floor is 26 feet below ground level near Bldg. 6580. The tank’s process water is routinely tested before discharge to the city sewer system and has never shown any radioactive contamination.

But the tank bottom has a thin layer of old sludge on it that tested positive for extremely small but detectable amounts of radioactive forms of uranium, cobalt, and cesium; additionally, nonradioactive chemicals such as arsenic and cadmium were measured in extremely low concentrations. Though the contaminants found in the sludge were never found in the water, the sludge had to be removed before the tank could be closed and abandoned.

The 47-year-old tank’s shape, depth, and position have made clean-up efforts difficult. Its low-oxygen, confined-space environment has precluded manned entry and inspection.

The viscosity of the sludge also presented a technical challenge. Mock-up tests for moving, vacuuming, and pumping were conducted using various mixtures of flour and water to replicate the texture and viscosity of the sludge, but all of the standard approaches proved unsatisfactory.

Initially, the options for cleaning the space looked complicated and expensive. Experts from across the Labs were brought together to present their concerns: Environmental Restoration, Regulated Waste/Nuclear Material Disposition and its contractors, Industrial Hygiene, Radiation Protection, Environmental Programs and Assurance, and Facilities Projects representatives defined the solution boundaries. Because of safety concerns, the contractor organizations familiar with similar projects chose not bid on the job.

Dan Borneo (6336) was the facilities project manager involved with trying to get the tank cleaned up starting in April 2006.

“We didn’t want to send anybody down there,” Dan says. “Twenty feet below ground, you’re going through a 30-inch diameter hole with no place to stand up. I wouldn’t want to do that. The contractors didn’t want to do that, either. Nobody would touch it.”

Leaving the sludge alone wasn’t an option, but Dan didn’t want to just dig up the tank. “Digging it up would be extremely expensive, but we couldn’t just leave it alone,” Dan says.

Dan and his group looked at small robots attached to complex vacuums such as those being used at DOE’s Hanford site for similar projects. Each of those systems cost $300,000, plus another $300,000 to bring one here and set it up. Dan decided to ask around.

“The great thing about being at Sandia,” Dan says “is if you can dream up a solution to something, someone at Sandia has already built one and it’s sitting on their shelf somewhere. The key is finding the right person and the right shelf.”

In October, Dan wrote to a few robotics engineers and asked if they had any extra robots. John Feddema, manager of Intelligent Systems Controls Dept. 6743, wrote back and said that, as a matter of fact, he did have a few. Dan had found the right shelf.

“We had produced these swarm vehicles for an LDRD project on cooperative robots and for several DARPA programs,” John explains.

For this application, one small 10-inch by 2-foot swarm robot was fitted with treads from old snow blower tires for extra traction. “We were limited to 24 to 28 inches from diagonal to diagonal. It just barely fit within the riser hole,” says John.

The robot’s small size would allow it to get from one side of the 16-foot-long tank to the other.

In the most recent experiments, Swarmy was able to carry a tethered can to the farthest corners of the tank so that pulling the tether drags the can through the sludge, collecting the material and allowing it to be removed from the tank and emptied for proper disposal.

The process is still being refined. Don Hanson of Hot Cells and Gamma Facilities Dept. 1382 hopes to fit Swarmy with a small snow blower to further break up the sludge and push it toward the access hole.

After some trial and error, it looks like Swarmy may provide a long-sought solution, one that Dept. 1382 Manager Dave Wheeler is happy to have now.

“Getting the sludge out of the tank ensures that future releases don't happen,” he says. -- Stephanie Holinka

Top of page

Sandia brings the Light Initiated High Explosive facility back online for stockpile surveillance tasks

By Stephanie Holinka

(For a PDF version of this story with photos, go here)

The Light Initiated High Explosive facility lies next to the much larger Thermal Test Complex. It looks small from the outside, but big things are going on inside.

The LIHE Facility supports nuclear weapons development and qualification testing for DOE/NNSA. It also provides test data for validation of computer models developed for the nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program. The facility was recently resurrected after the original facility was mothballed in the early 1990s, when testing activities slowed down at the Labs (see “Collective memory, great planning, textbook mothballing process helped revive unique test facility” below).

LIHE’s tests simulate some of the specific conditions that occur when a nuclear device is set off near an asset such as a weapons system or a satellite. Using a thin, sprayed-on explosive coating that can be ignited by a high-intensity light flash, LIHE generates an impulse that elicits the proper structural response of the test item (see “About LIHE” below).

The LIHE facility is the only high-fidelity test technique available for the impulse testing of nuclear weapons. Nuclear underground testing used to be the best way to do this type of impulse response experiments, but the US has not done underground testing since 1992 and has no plans to resume.

Every major nuclear weapons system fielded in the US has been tested, in some capacity, at LIHE. The customer base for the LIHE facility now includes most of the nuclear weapons systems groups, computer modeling groups, and some work for others groups outside Sandia.

The LIHE facility is operated by a team of five from Explosive Projects/Diagnostics Dept. 2554, including the project lead and test engineer Gary Rivera, test engineer Tim Covert, instrumentation specialist Ed Mulligan, spray operator Dan Dow, and high-voltage operator John Liwski. It’s an integral part of the Explosive Technology Group, which also operates the Explosive Component Facility.

Ed Mulligan, LIHE’s current lead instrumentation technologist, was the LIHE high-voltage operator team member who mothballed the facility when it was deemed that there were not enough customers to keep the facility open 100 percent of the time. LIHE is the only Sandia facility he knows of that has been completely shut down and then brought back more than a decade later.

Before an LIHE test, the explosives are remotely formulated on site in an environmentally controlled spray booth. LIHE uses the primary explosive silver acetylide-silver nitrate (SASN), which is highly sensitive and can be initiated with a bright flash of light. SASN is so sensitive that it’s not widely used and is carefully controlled throughout its life cycle at LIHE.

After the explosive is made, a remote-controlled robot arm holding a modified spray gun carefully sprays thin layers of explosive onto the surface of complex structural shapes. Depending on the complexity of the shape and the desired explosive characteristics required, the spray process can last up to 13 hours.

After spraying and conditioning, the test unit is remotely moved to a test cell in front of a light array of tungsten wires enclosed in quartz tubes.

The explosive is simultaneously detonated over the sprayed surface by exposing it to an intense flash of light generated by a 40,000-volt capacitor bank discharged through the tungsten wires to create a bright electrical arc in each quartz tube. A state-of-the-art instrumentation system, capable of recording up to 160 channels of strain, acceleration, and pressure data, captures the effects of the test. Those data are provided to LIHE customers for system validation.

After the test, excess explosive is safely disposed of at an on-site, New Mexico Environmental Department-permitted treatment facility.

Gary says he hopes to expand the LIHE customer base to groups such as satellite purveyors and materials investigators to take advantage of the expertise at the LIHE facility for any structure that gets put into space or undergoes similar endoatmospheric impulse loading.

About LIHE

The LIHE facility at this time is being used primarily to investigate the structural response of complex test items such as reentry bodies/vehicles to shock-producing events. The tests at LIHE are high-fidelity tests, meaning that the test loading is delivered in the proper time frame and applied over the entire test surface at the same time.

During a hostile encounter — such as a nuclear weapon detonated in space near a reentry vehicle — hot, warm, and cold X-rays are produced. When cold X-rays deposit themselves in a thin layer on the asset’s surface, that material heats up nearly instantaneously and vaporizes, sending a shockwave into the structure. This can cause all kinds of problems with external materials and internal components. By knowing the effects of these events on systems and components, designers can take steps to counter them.

LIHE tests for cold X-ray damage, primarily focusing on the structural response internal to the system, which is of greatest interest to DOE. The emerging flyer plate technologies are being developed to address the material response of the external surfaces, which is of high interest to the DoD.

Collective memory, great planning, textbook mothballing process helped revive unique test facility

LIHE first came online in the early 1970s, and was one of many test facilities for the nation’s nuclear stockpile. Every major reentry weapons system in the nation’s nuclear arsenal came to LIHE for testing. In the early 1990s LIHE closed its doors. The end of the Cold War and a decreasing need for large testing facilities diminished the ongoing need for the facility. Gary Rivera says facilities like LIHE all “were shut down, mothballed, or just plain went away.” But it turned out that the need for an impulse test facility remained.

Luckily, the engineers and technicians who worked at LIHE didn’t just tear down the facility and walk away. They felt that the nation might require LIHE’s capabilities in the future. So when the facility went offline, all the major systems were crated, documented, and carefully stored in the Manzano storage facility with an eye toward returning LIHE to operation if the nation called.

Bob Benham, now retired, packed up the major LIHE systems, many with detailed documentation that allowed it to be resurrected.

“He saved everything,” Gary says. “Even the facility computer systems were still there. They were so outdated that we couldn’t use them anymore. For- tunately, we were able to retrieve many of the computer files and programs from the computer tapes and rewrite them and implement them in modern code.”

As the plans for the W76-1 Life Extension Program got off the ground, the decision was made to re-open the facility, under the direction of then project lead Mike Skaggs, to conduct two full systems tests for both model validation and system certification.

John Tissler, who was the manager for Tech Area 3 at the time of the LIHE’s tear-down, wasn’t convinced that there’d ever be a need for the LIHE, and did not initially support the careful storage of its equipment. But his experience with LIHE’s return changed all that.

In 2002, when Sandia decided to restore LIHE to test the W76-1, the experts who made the LIHE so successful were no longer available, either through retirements or though re-assignment to other long-term projects.

As part of a knowledge preservation project, retired Sandians Bob Benham, Ben Duggins, and Jerry Brock came back as consultants and went through the processes and equipment that made the facility so successful.

“They were able to discuss some of the ‘skill of the art,’ that doesn’t get documented,” Gary says. The LIHE veterans began mentoring Sandia personnel on LIHE’s principles, processes, and equipment. They also suggested improvements to the old facilities and improvements in capabilities for a new facility.

When the decision to restart the LIHE facility was made, the new facility operators were already in training.

Some of the major features of the facility were simply brought back online. Others were replaced due to modernization of computing equipment, facilities improvements, and updated safety requirements.

After equipment calibration and proof-of-capability testing, the LIHE facility conducted two fully instrumented impulse tests on a WR-quality W76-1 unit. The tests succeeded completely. -- Stephanie Holinka

Top of page