Mini radiation detector to be used to find nukes

December 13, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
When NASA's Messenger satellite made a flyby of the planet Mercury a few weeks ago, it used the smallest, most accurate radiation detector ever developed. That same technology will now be put to use on Earth to find smuggled nuclear material.

Hand-held nuclear threat detectors are in the works.

Morgan Burks recently held in his hand the future of nuclear detection:, a High-Def gamma ray identifier. Burks is a physicist at Lawrence Livermore Lab and the device's designer.

"You need a high resolution device that can tell you, 'Yes, it is uranium or plutonium', or, 'No, it's a medical source.' for example. And, you need a hand-held device because you have to be able to carry it in maybe an emergency situation to a lot of locations like border crossings, shipping ports, and so on."

Until now, you couldn't have both, because a gamma ray detector needs its own extreme refrigerator. You could have a lo-res handheld detector like one used at the Port of Oakland or a huge high-res one. Then, the experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made a revolutionary cooler so small it fits inside a gold thermos called GeMini.

It is so small that GeMini is now aboard a satellite, NASA's Messenger, which soon will become the first ever to orbit the planet Mercury. It will make a gamma ray map of the planet. It's plated in real gold, the best material to reflect infrared heat. In orbit around the planet Mercury, there's a lot of heat.

Meanwhile, a different kind of portable detector is orbiting cities, ARAM. Adaptable Radiation Area Monitoring suitcases packed with detectors that are in use undercover , even aboard SUVs. ARAM is another project by the Lab to make nuclear detection, like the space program effort, smaller, lighter and better.

Page Stoutland, Director of Global Security Strategy at Lawrence Livermore Lab, says it's a continuing effort.

"In my view, we can make dramatic leaps in the size, form factor and performance of these devices. So, what we'd like to do is to take things that are currently as big as a suitcase and very high performing, and figure out how to get that down into a truly hand-held device without losing any performance."


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