Two radiation generators mark major milestones

September 8, 2011 By Neal Singer
Saturn, Sandia’s workhorse pulsed-power machine, delivers hard radiation during one of its milestone shots. The scarcity of jagged, lightning-like arcing between different water/metal interfaces means that the machine’s water insulation is effective, and that relatively much of its electrical pulse is traveling on its intended path from the machine’s circular exterior to its central target. Credit: Randy Montoya

Two remarkable pulsed-power machines used to test the nation’s defenses against atomic weapons have surpassed milestones at Sandia National Laboratories: 4,000 firings, called ‘shots,’ on the Saturn accelerator and 9,000 shots on the HERMES III accelerator.

Saturn — originally projected to last 5 to 10 years — began operating in 1987. Its major function has been to produce X-rays to test the effectiveness of countermeasures used to protect electronics and other materials against X-ray radiation from nuclear weapons. The machine, used broadly as a physics research testbed , provides data that can be used either directly or as input for computer simulations. The machine can fire twice a day. All these characteristics make it a spry source for data.

HERMES (High-Energy Radiation Megavolt Electron Source) III, which can fire six to eight times daily, is used primarily to demonstrate the effect of gamma ray radiation -- another component of a nuclear weapon burst -- on electronics and larger military hardware. First fired in 1988, it is still the world’s most powerful gamma ray generator.

“The continued operation of these facilities is a testament to the ingenuity and dedication of personnel and management,” said Sandia manager Ray Thomas.

Saturn is a predecessor to Sandia’s more awesome Z machine, but still fills a significant niche. Though it operates at roughly one-third the power of Z, Saturn can accelerate electrons at voltages and amperages that allow materials to be tested for so-called hard X-ray effects; the Z facility is not configured to produce X-rays in this critical range of frequencies.

Twenty-one years ago, in what proved to be one of Saturn’s most high-profile endeavors, it hosted its first wire-array tests, which pulsed millions of amperes in nanoseconds through a number of wires each thinner than a human hair. The success of these tests led to installation of wire-array hardware on the larger Z machine, with gains in X-ray output that astonished the world and led to Z’s consideration as a potentially reliable way to create electricity essentially from seawater, the world’s largest natural resource.

Technicians service the linear HERMES pulsed-power machine — the most powerful gamma ray producer in the world — for its next shot. Because of Sandia’s nuclear responsibilities, HERMES and Saturn are kept in “warm, standby mode” for immediate testing of components. Credit: Randy Montoya

In those early tests, the wires of course disintegrated like overstressed fuses from the great flood of electricity. But the powerful magnetic field always associated with a powerful electric current grabbed the floating ions created from the shorted-out wires and pulled them together at great speeds. When the ions ran out of room to travel, they stopped suddenly, confronting each other along a relatively vertical axis that was the hub of the magnetic field. Their sudden braking led them to release X-ray energy, similar to the release of heat from a car’s tires when the driver jams on the brakes. The scientific process, called a z-pinch by geometrical reference, caused an extraordinary increase of X-ray energy output over previous methods. Such intense X-rays can be used to compress a BB-sized hydrogen capsule, fusing its contents to release enormous energies that eventually could be used to drive an electrical power plant on very little fuel.

Unlike Saturn and Z, whose modules are each arranged in a circular pattern that resembles a wagon wheel, with electrical transmission lines like spokes leading to the target at the axle, HERMES uses 20 inductively isolated modules coupled to a linear transmission line that resembles a short subway train in size, shape and amount of metal. The output voltage from each module is added in series, the reason for the very high voltage achieved. Saturn’s outdoor test facility is large enough to accommodate military tanks.

Continued improvements on both machines have enhanced their capabilities to map portions of the X-ray spectra previously unattainable, and to reach radiation dose rates never before achieved by an .

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5 / 5 (2) Sep 08, 2011
Stunning sight.

Looks like a real Doomsdaydevice :)
5 / 5 (5) Sep 08, 2011
Kinda cool that they can drive a tank into the HERMES into the testing area to test a whole integrated machine. I was imagining just a couple square feet for testing individual components.

Good article Neal.
not rated yet Sep 08, 2011
Enjoyed the article - amazing machines.

...the powerful magnetic field always associated with a powerful electric current...

It does my heart good to see that phrase in print.

Another article posted yesterday on, "Something new on the Sun: Spacecraft observes new characteristics of solar flares", never mentions electric currents and instead says:

Solar flares are intense bursts of radiation from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots.

I think the JPL/NASA and Sandia people should spend more time together - somebody seems to be possibly overlooking a few key elements, and I don't think it is the Sandia crew.
5 / 5 (4) Sep 08, 2011
I don't think the science/engineering crews are the ones overlooking the things you mention - it is the 'journalists' who write the articles who generally miss important phrasings or points.

Speaking of missed, you missed the best technical statement ever to grace physorg.
saturn is a predecessor to sandia's more awesome Z machine
5 / 5 (1) Sep 08, 2011
You are probably right about your first point, and definitely right about the second one.

I was all set to blame the 'journalists' in the first place, when I noticed that over on that other article it says (at the very bottom)"Provided by JPL/NASA".

Now granted, it may be JPL's/NASA's journalists, which would bring it full circle, but since that's all the citation I noticed, that's who I chose to throw bricks at.

Still, you're probably correct.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 08, 2011
it may be JPL's/NASA's journalists
Those would be called publicists, or public relations personnel. Journalists would be those who are independent and objective.
5 / 5 (2) Sep 08, 2011
@PinkElephant: Mark it on your calendar - you're right!
Good call, and thanks for the clarification.

(Any other day I'd take exception to the word "objective", but let's just let that slide... Overall, you're correct.)
5 / 5 (1) Sep 08, 2011
I love these types of machines. Raw unadultered high voltage. I have a spare CRT that really has my attention right now (same mechanics at a smaller scale). Have you ever seen the warnings pasted inside one? "Warning possible x-ray source" My mother told me never to put a foot through one because the shielding is poisonous; what a heavy thought...
not rated yet Sep 09, 2011
Reminds me of Shiva Star.
1 / 5 (3) Sep 11, 2011
"NEW YORK Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani read a familiar Bible verse at the World Trade Center.

"Giuliani, who was mayor during the terrorist attack, chose Ecclesiastes 3:4 to read at the 10th anniversary ceremony.

"It's the one that begins, "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

-The specific verse:
"4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,"Ecc3:4

-Meaning that there is a Proper Time for these and every activity listed in this passage, a Description of why Empire has been so successful. These Things are all INEVITABLE.

But should we weep or laugh, mourn or dance? Depends wholly on which Side you're on. Irregardless, Empire determines When, Where, How and Why.

Read the whole thing:

-Er sorry, wrong thread-
not rated yet Sep 11, 2011
"NEW YORK Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani read a familiar Bible verse at the World Trade Center."

On 911, a giant tent fell and many goats were killed.
1 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2011
"NEW YORK Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani read a familiar Bible verse at the World Trade Center."

On 911, a giant tent fell and many goats were killed.
Really, did that happen in canada? What a coincidence. You guys depend so much on your livestock. Is there a memorial?
1 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2011
Something like this maybe?

"OTTOWA - Memorial for animals killed in war
"We need the monument because our casualty list of close to 60,000 in the First World War and some 48,000 in the Second World War would have been much higher had it not been for the support of our animals," he said. "The animals managed to bring the guns forward, the animals that managed to bring the provisions forward, the animals that evacuated our wounded. We owe a great debt to them."

If you'd like to contribute to Swick's fundraising campaign, donations can be made to the Animals in War Dedication Fund at any TD Canada Trust via account #___-______.

-Thats sweet.

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