Monday, May 11, 2009

please indulge me in a small digression

I wish to tell you a little about Nuclear Weapons Effects simulators and the companies that build them.

NWE simulators exist because governments need to know:

A) whether their existing nuclear weapons will continue to work if needed

B) how new weapons and defensive systems will behave when exposed to NWE.

The data required to answer those questions can only be acquired from real-world phenomena usually found only in the proximity of a nuclear detonation. International treaties prevent actual nuclear detonations these days, so other means have to be found to generate frighteningly intense bursts of gamma radiation (among other sorts) comparable to those attained from a nuclear weapon, but without the big explosion, messy & inconvenient radioactive fallout, and so on of the real thing.

If you are a very smart person (or a small group of very smart people) in the right place, at the right time, you can form a company with the express purpose of converting millions of federal dollars into terrifyingly powerful, if vanishingly short, bursts of photons - intense gamma radiation, magnetic fields, etc. This happens quite often in the field of Nuclear Weapons Effects simulators.

Lately, I've been trying to find information about these companies, who built such imposing and little-known devices as Columbus I & II, Aurora, REBA, SLIM, Nereus, HARP, PROTO I & PROTO II, EBFA/PBFA, Decade Quad, GAMBLE-II, Black Jack, SNARK, RADLAC-I & -II, CASINO, HERMES-I, -II, & -III, Hydra, Atlas, Saturn, The Z Machine, and many others.

But most of these companies existed only for five or ten years, and then something happens - a crucial partner dies in a car accident leading the surviving partner to dissolve the company, the company is bought by another company, various things. Actually, a LOT of them seem to get bought or merge with another company. The history of these companies and their projects reads like a mixture of old bible stories (ABC begat KLM, KLM begat XYZ, etc) and modern industrial conglomerate acquisitions.

And that is how L3 Communications (a major defense contractor formed from ten former business units of Lockheed Corporation when Lockheed merged in 1996 with Martin Marietta) has suddenly and only recently become the largest contractor for Big Scary Government Doomsday Devices in the world. Unless you count Sandia National Laboratories itself as if it were a contractor - which in essence it is, since it is operated for the U.S. Government by - guess who? Lockheed Martin.

Not all of the results had to do with simulating the radiation effects of nuclear weapons. Some experiments were designed to verify or develop equations of state for exotic states of matter such as plutonium being compressed into a hyperdense state during the detonation of an implosion fission device.

Experiments were also performed with an eye toward developing directed energy weapons (see also Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars") and toward means of discriminating between real and dummy re-entry vehicles (see also Penetration Aids).

Then too, it was recognized fairly early that very powerful pulsed power machines might be capable of triggering nuclear fusion, and research along those lines is still being performed on some of the largest pulse machines in the world. Unfortunately, it took quite a long time before the data supporting the possibility of inertial confinement fusion became generally known in the physics community because of the classified nature of most of the work performed on these machines.

The energies involved are so staggering, they are difficult to comprehend even in terms of magnitude comparisons to familiar events. The numbers beggar belief. For example, Sandia National Labs "Z Machine" delivers 1,000 times more energy than the most powerful lightning bolt nature has to offer, and does it in 1/20,000 of the time. In electrical terms, it delivers 20 million amperes of current in a 290 trillion watt (290 terawatts) pulse over 100 nanoseconds. For that short period, 'Z' is delivering 80 times the power generating capacity of the entire world. In physics terms, Z converts that electrical pulse into 2 million joules of Bremsstrahlung x-rays in a 4 nanosecond pulse. 8x1015 watts.  Enough to implode a tiny deuterium-filled target and raise its temperature high enough to undergo nuclear fusion.

Is it any wonder I am fascinated with pulsed power experiments?

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