Los Alamos in SPACE

Since the launches of the first man-made objects (Sputnik and Explorer 1) to orbit the Earth more than a half-century ago, thousands of spacecraft have been launched, many of those carrying Los Alamos sensors and instrumentation systems. Our journey began with the research and development of a two-decade-long nuclear rocket program, Project Rover.

In the 1950s, Los Alamos scientists, building on their nuclear expertise, examined new methods for rocket propulsion into space. In December 1960, in the thick of the Cold War and during negotiation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) first met to discuss a space-based system to detect nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and space. The nation turned to Los Alamos for development of instruments to detect radiation from such a detonation as well as to understand the Earth's space environment, mostly unknown at the time.

Satellite-Based Monitoring of Nuclear Explosions

On October 17, 1963, one week after the test-ban treaty went into effect, the first Vela spacecraft launched with Los Alamos radiation detection and space-environment instruments. The Vela series of satellites, which spanned 1963-1984, carried Los Alamos-designed-and-built sensors for detecting x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, and the natural background of radiation in space. These satellites also contributed significantly to astrophysics, interplanetary physics, and our understanding of the Earth's magnetosphere. In 2003, NASA launched the Swift satellite that carried a massive (gamma-ray) burst-alert telescope and LANL triggering and imaging software. Data derived from these instruments led to our discovery of the Earth's plasma sheet, heavy ions, and high-charge states in solar wind. In 2009, Swift recorded the farthest object in the universe ever observed, thought to be a giant star. Gamma-ray bursts, also discovered by Los Alamos instruments on Vela, continue to provide deep insight into supernova and the final moments of stellar death and are the primary focus of "thinking telescopes," discussed later in this article.

LANL's robotic thinking telescope system, RAPTOR.

LANL's robotic thinking telescope system, RAPTOR.

LANL instruments on Vela satellites and subsequent series of spacecraft provided security for the remainder of the Cold War and continue today both for treaty verification and to monitor the skies and detect aboveground nuclear detonations. Our nuclear-explosion expertise and experience has provided the necessary background for sophisticated nuclear detection. Today, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories continue to supply nuclear-test-monitoring sensors deployed on U.S. satellite systems.

Our work on the Vela program was followed by a LANL/Sandia National Laboratories collaboration with the United States Air Force on the Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, which provide early warning of ballistic missile launches or nuclear explosions. LANL-designed instruments for similar detection continue to be carried on several series of missions, including DSP and the Global Positioning System (GPS). LANL-led technology demonstration missions—or those using LANL's key subsystems— included Fast On-orbit Recording of Transient Events (FORTE), Array of Low Energy X-ray Imaging Sensors (ALEXIS), Multispectral Thermal Imager (MTI), and Cibola Flight Experiment (CFE). Many of these technologies, including GPS, contributed to current research, such as LANL's Dynamic Radiation Environment Assimilation Model (DREAM), developed to understand and predict hazards from the natural space environment and artificial radiation belts produced by high-altitude nuclear explosions.

A Mind of Their Own

The sensors built and flown for the Laboratory's national security mission also detect natural backgrounds and odd signals such as lightning flashes—so LANL experts were called upon to create more advanced sensors that also provided data for atmospheric sciences, space-plasma science, and astrophysics. By understanding the natural backgrounds observed by our national security payloads, we can provide information on nuclear detonations with greater certainty and reliability. Our research in gamma-ray bursts has evolved into a new astronomical paradigm of "thinking telescopes" of today, such as RAPTOR, which is an array of ground-based telescopes that troll the night sky looking for changes of astrophysical objects as well as objects orbiting Earth. Not only can this system decipher whether signals are noise of astrophysical origin or from an object orbiting Earth, but it can do so independently while also determining in real time which data are sufficiently important to be sent back to operators for further review. RAPTOR extracts key information of an anomalous astrophysical event or unknown Earth-orbiting object from massive amounts of information that includes noise, astrophysical objects that don't change in time or location, and known Earth-orbiting objects that follow expected trajectories in the sky. This system greatly eases the impossible task for human operators to sift through such massive amounts of data and search for threats or new astrophysical transients.

RAPTOR is LANL's agile, robotic telescope system currently located near Los Alamos that operates just like a human eye: it detects early optical light from gamma-ray bursts by using a collection of wide field-of-view telescopes and responds quickly—within several seconds anywhere in the night sky—with a higher magnification telescope. On a February night in 2006, Los Alamos astrophysicist Przemek Wozniak was awakened by a cell-phone call from RAPTOR, which had found something strange—a rapidly rising light signal coming from the position of a very short burst detected and located. These bursts announce the birth of stellar-size black holes, the most powerful events since the Big Bang. Following its own logic, RAPTOR recorded the light signal every 30 seconds and noted a doubling in brightness over four minutes—an afterglow that was rising rather than fading. Running real-time analysis software, RAPTOR decided to report the anomaly to a human.

"This was a first, an autonomous optical telescope finding an anomaly on its own with no human intervention," said Tom Verstrand, a LANL scientist who made it his goal a decade ago to do things no one else had yet accomplished, combining robots with telescopes. "If humans had been in the loop, they would have said, as we did, 'gamma-ray bursts don't act like that. Forget it.' And RAPTOR wouldn't have found anything."

Verstrand achieved his extraordinary goal. For the RAPTOR team, the discovery was significant: proof that RAPTOR has a mind of its own—truly a thinking telescope system.

The Los Alamos team is working to make RAPTOR a "discovery engine" for astronomy, scanning the entire night sky frequently, screening a hundred million visible objects and alerting us to something important. The same autonomous technology that detects eruptions at the edge of the universe can be used to detect objects orbiting the Earth—a pathfinder technology for exploring the dynamic universe in real time and making significant discoveries without human intervention.

Capabilities and experts needed for our space-based nuclear detonation detection program resulted in some amazing scientific discoveries—Los Alamos researchers developed a simple neutron spectrometer that uses the speed of the spacecraft to detect low-energy (thermal) neutrons and discovered water on Mars and Earth's moon. Powerful cosmological surveys demand a new generation of simulations of structure formation in the universe. Large-scale computations are an essential resource for the Laboratory's nuclear weapons program, aided by LANL's Roadrunner, the world's first petaflop-per-second computing platform. Los Alamos scientists are now using one of the largest-ever computer models and applying uncertainty quantification, another key capability developed within the nuclear weapons program, to explore the origin and evolution of dark matter and dark energy in the universe.

Space systems used for the nuclear detonation detection program were continually upgraded for sensitivity, dynamic range, and background rejection. And although we made them more sophisticated, we also ensured they would survive a space launch and operate autonomously for more than a decade in the harsh environment of space. Los Alamos launched our first satellite, ALEXIS, in 1993 from Edwards Air Force Base in California. The ALEXIS satellite contained the two experiments: the ALEXIS telescope array, consisting of six EUV/ultrasoft x-ray telescopes utilizing multilayer mirrors, and a VHF ionospheric experiment. A ground station located at Los Alamos exclusively controlled the spacecraft.

Los Alamos technology frequently studies lightning to differentiate it from a nuclear blast and to better understand this electrical phenomenon. FORTE, an all-composite launch vehicle and satellite, was launched in 1997 to study optical and radio-frequency signals. FORTE possesses capabilities that also make it an outstanding platform for the study of the top layer of the atmosphere, the ionosphere. Another goal for LANL's space scientists? Predicting hurricane intensification by monitoring eyewall lightning.

Space science provides diverse information to protect people on the ground. LANL and Sandia National Laboratories' Multispectral Thermal Imager (MTI) satellite and GENetic Imagery Exploitation (GENIE) analysis of imagery from the core of the 2001 terrorist attack in New York provided information about ground temperatures and chemical plumes. Now in its eleventh year in orbit, the MTI satellite was designed to measure temperatures on the ground from space with an accuracy of one degree Celsius across 15 spectral bands.

As threats to our nation's security have emerged and evolved, our surveillance systems have changed. Los Alamos developed methods to detect and characterize facilities that might conceal weapons of mass destruction—an extremely complicated task. Advanced imaging techniques were developed, many of which are not only now utilized in space but also at airports and border crossings, among other crowded facilities.

Los Alamos instruments have been onboard many satellites for decades. For example, radioisotope thermoelectric generators pioneered at LANL powered the Cassini mission to Saturn in 1997. The Cassini mission led to the discovery of the Titan ionosphere and more recently the discovery at Saturn's moon Enceladus of jets of charged grains as well as water-group ions in the ionosphere.

A Stepping Stone to Mars

In 1998, three LANL instruments flew aboard the revolutionary Lunar Prospector, which mapped our moon's surface composition and possible polar ice deposits. Lunar Prospector data, analyzed and interpreted by Los Alamos scientists, provided the first global maps of elemental abundances over the moon's surface of uranium, thorium, potassium, iron, titanium, oxygen, silicon, aluminum, magnesium, and calcium. Lunar Prospector also discovered the presence of hydrogen, possibly in the form of water, in permanently shadowed craters in the north and south polar regions. The spacecraft orbited the moon for nearly 19 months gathering data, prior to being intentionally crashed in a final attempt to extract additional information about the possibility of water on the moon.

Can Mars support life? Los Alamos hopes to answer that question via our instrument ChemCam, comprised of a remote micro-imager and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy equipment for chemically analyzing rocks and soil. ChemCam, developed in collaboration with NASA and the French space agency, is being installed on the Mars Science Laboratory, a six-wheeled rover named Curiosity. NASA plans to launch Curiosity on a rocket this fall, with an expected landing on Mars in August 2012. Read more in this magazine's ChemCam article.

Discovery Science of Tomorrow

Los Alamos has a prominent role in nonproliferation, test-ban verification and space situational awareness (knowing the location of every object orbiting the Earth)but we also have a large role in space exploration and basic science. Since the 1970s, Los Alamos led instruments (or major parts of instruments) on NASA missions to study Earth, its moon, the sun, comets, asteroids, planets, and the outer heliosphere. Of particular importance is the study and monitoring of the space weather near Earth and the geomagnetic storms driven by bursts of solar material and energy that ride in the solar wind and interact with Earth. These storms can severely affect telecommunications, the electrical grid, satellites, and astronaut safety. Laboratory instruments detected a large geomagnetic storm in 1997, and Los Alamos was able to quickly alert other scientific teams in advance, a "first" with our unique combination of spacecraft and ground-based monitoring capabilities. LANL has continued to help demystify space weather. Read more about Los Alamos' recent space-weather research in the HOPE article in this issue.

Lunar Prospector

Lunar Prospector, a NASA Discovery mission, was launched into lunar orbit in 1998. Image courtesy of NASA

Using the High Energy Neutral Atom Imager led by Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA's IBEX mission launched a satellite in 2008 that is measuring atoms ricocheting from the distant shock wave formed by the interaction of the expanding solar wind and the interstellar cloud through which we are moving. Last year the IBEX team reported a completely unexpected "noodle soup" of emissions from the outer fringes of our heliospheric bubble. Read more in this issue's IBEX sidebar.

Los Alamos space science also aids our understanding of climate change. In a scientific article released last year, LANL scientists Petr Chylek and Manvedra Dubey plus collaborators described for the first time how they utilized remote sensing, modeling, and analysis to report an alternating, see-saw pattern in warming trends of the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. Understanding the relationship between climate changes in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is essential for scientists to predict the dynamics of the Earth's climate system. Understanding the nature of polar regions is critical if the world's policy makers are to address the possibility of global, human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change caused by the melting of the polar ice sheets and the subsequent rise of the world's sea levels.

"It has significant impact on our understanding of and predictions for global warming," said Herb Funsten, chief scientist for LANL's International, Space, and Response Division. LANL models are sought worldwide by climate modeling groups.

From Signals to Interpretation

Even in today's technology climate—smart phones, Internet, social networking—detection of hidden activities that threaten the safety of our citizens is extraordinarily difficult. More sensitive instruments, revolutionary measuring techniques, and the expertise to turn data into information for discovering nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons of mass destruction go hand in hand with discovering and understanding physical processes underlying the space sciences and their impact on our planet and its resources. LANL is adept at remote sensing, detecting signatures, data collection and analyses (enhanced by event response), signal propagation and instrument development, and performance analysis.

We have a long history of developing space systems for national security and scientific research. From the early days with rocket-borne diagnostics to today's diverse and complex capabilities, we've strengthened national security with our sensor and processing capabilities while also using these capabilities to explore space and provide cutting-edge results and technologies.

LANL has engaged in space projects with applications that range from fundamental science and military functions to commercial and civilian activities. LANL scientists have conducted advanced research in areas such as astrophysics, planetary science, space physics, and Earth sciences such as climate research. And our technology has far-reaching applications.

-Kirsten Fox

Following is a partial list of NASA missions in which we have led instruments or led major instrument subsystems:

Interplanetary (beyond Earth):
Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), studies the solar wind
Ulysses, first spacecraft out of the ecliptic plane to study the the solar wind from the polar regions of the sun
Cassini, studies the space environment of Saturn and its moons
Lunar Prospector, mapped the elemental composition of the lunar surface and presence of water in permanently-shadowed craters
Deep Space 1, studied the plume of comet Borrelly Mars Odyssey, discovered and mapped the distribution of water on Mars
Genesis, studied the composition of the solar wind to understand the formation of the solar system
Mars Science Lab, scheduled to launch in 2012 to study the elemental and minerology of Mars
Dawn, study the composition of two asteroids, Ceres and Vesta

Earth-orbiting:

HETE, x-ray astronomy
IMAGE, global imaging of the Earth's plasma environment
TWINS, stereoscopic global imaging of the Earth's plasma environment
SWIFT, detects gamma-ray bursts to study supernova
IBEX, study the interaction of our heliosphere with the local interstellar medium
RBSP (launch in 2014), 1st mission designed to study the structure and dynamics of the radiation belts

NOTE: Plutonium-based radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) developed or fueled by LANL include the following NASA missions: Pioneer, Voyager, Viking, Apollo, Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini, New Horizons, and Mars landers

In this issue...

Contact Us | Careers | Bradbury Science Museum | Emergencies | Inside LANL | Maps | Site Feedback | SSL Portal | Training

Operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's NNSA © Copyright 2014 LANS, LLC All rights reserved | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy