April 17, 2003

Technologies Employed in Space Search for Supernovae Provide a Boost in Fighting Terrorism on Earth

Detection technologies developed to search for black holes and supernovae in space have a new down-to-earth application – helping to fight terrorism.

The same technologies used to study astrophysics phenomena at the edge of the universe are also being adapted to search for faint emissions from nuclear materials or nuclear devices.

"Our collaborative team has been working on the forefront of technology for detecting weak emissions from outer space," said Simon Labov, who heads Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Radiation Detection Center.

"We’ve been able to take these advanced technologies and adapt them for national security uses, such as detecting radiation from nuclear materials.

"In both cases," Labov added, "the emissions are faint and there is a lot of background noise. Having advanced high-sensitivity detectors can solve both problems."

For years, Livermore researchers have collaborated with scientists from the California Institute of Technology, the Goddard Space Flight Center, UC Berkeley, Columbia and Harvard to develop the latest technologies for detecting and imaging space phenomena.

Now, the research for space is assisting in the detection of nuclear materials or nuclear devices, Labov said.

"Experimental astrophysics is a large enterprise and many top-notch people are devoting themselves to this effort. Their experience, their achievements and their help can now also be used for countering terrorism and other homeland security projects," Labov said.

In effect, the research efforts of about 50 researchers and $20 million spent during the past five years is being leveraged for detecting nuclear materials, Labov explained.

One Livermore space detection project is the launch later this year of the High Energy Focusing Telescope, which has been developed jointly by LLNL, CalTech, Columbia University and the Danish Space Research Institute. The telescope will be released near Fort Sumner, N.M., and will ascend to 120,000 feet aboard a high-altitude scientific balloon.

A key objective of the High Energy Focusing Telescope, consisting of a telescope, mirrors and detectors, will be to study how supernovae create and distribute most of the elements heavier than helium.
As an example of the improvement in detection technologies, Labov cited that a decade ago gamma rays could not be efficiently focused.

When launched this fall, the High Energy Focusing Telescope will fly with an array of mirrors that will focus gamma rays onto imaging detectors that provide 10 to 100 times more sensitivity than is achievable with conventional nonfocusing systems.

Integrated circuits work in conjunction with cadmium-zinc-telluride crystals to measure gamma ray signals at hundreds of different points, producing clear pictures with high spectral resolution, while operating at low power in a compact package that can be produced at low cost.

These detectors will be the heart of both future satellite missions to study black holes at the edge of the universe and hand-held detector/cell phone instruments to find and analyze nuclear materials here on Earth.


Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security laboratory, with a mission to ensure national security and apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Laboratory news releases and photos are also available electronically on the World Wide Web of the Internet at URL http://www.llnl.gov/PAO and on UC Newswire.