To better understand how nuclear weapons will handle high-gravity (high-g) environments—such as a missile launch or the reentry of a warhead into the atmosphere—Los Alamos National Laboratory conducts a variety of tests at its Centrifuge Test Facility (CTF).
Tests at the CTF evaluate the effects of high-g loading on internal components of weapon assemblies, including high-explosive charges, detonators, electronics, and nuclear materials. The test objects are attached to the arm of the centrifuge and spun to high velocities to simulate atmospheric reentry deceleration forces and lateral g-loading. Data are typically acquired using accelerometers, strain gauges, and displacement sensors.
The facility opened in 2016 but recently got an upgrade to its suite of diagnostic tools: flash x-ray radiography. Now, the CTF can image the internal components during these tests, which is a valuable new capability.
“Up to now, it has been impossible to truly visualize the internal components of a weapon system or space system under a high-g environment,” says CTF test engineer Alex Cusick. “Now we do not need to rely solely on data to understand the effects of these environments; we have the ability to look at real images to visualize them which is truly unique and exciting.”
“These tests are at the core of the weapons development objectives because they allow us to feed results back into our computer models and redesign efforts, and they allow us to qualify design changes before those changes are made to weapons in our stockpile,” Cusick continues. “Radiography adds to the existing methods, making our analysis capabilities more powerful than ever.”
Beyond the nuclear weapons mission, the CTF is also used to qualify flight electronics and components that will be used for space applications, such as satellite components that are being developed by the Intelligence and Space Research Division and others at Los Alamos.
CTF is also a user facility that supports external organizations for similar, non-weapons related work. Los Alamos is currently collaborating with Texas A&M University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and others on future tests.