NNSS News

Small UAS radiological survey flights at the NNSS

small UAS
The sUAS and radiation detector.

In December 2019, a team led by scientists from the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) Special Technologies Laboratory and Remote Sensing Laboratory-Nellis demonstrated a radiation detection, measurement and mapping mission using a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS). Using a sUAS equipped with a high-efficiency radiation detector, the team successfully performed radiation scans over two Yucca Flat test locations and successfully demonstrated how UAS technology can be leveraged in support of national security and public health and safety missions, particularly in the area of emergency response and consequence management. The flyover mission was sponsored by the Site-Directed Research and Development UAS initiative and led by Rusty Trainham, a senior principal scientist from the NNSS Special Technologies Laboratory, and Paul Guss, a distinguished scientist from the NNSS Remote Sensing Laboratory-Nellis.

A sUAS can be used in conjunction with existing capabilities from manned aircraft to provide more detailed follow-on surveys of radiation and contamination following a radiological emergency. The team is planning more field work to further explore the ability of a sUAS to fly into and assess difficult areas, such as tunnels and other GPS-denied environments, during national emergency situations. Additionally, the team is moving closer to achieving their goal of developing hardware, methods and expertise to provide critical information that helps protect emergency responders and the public in the event of a radiological emergency.

small UAS
The sUAS radiological survey flight team (from left): Alan Horzewski, Todd Bagley, Manny Manard, Rusty Trainham, Hovig Yaralian and Paul Guss.

Aerial radiological surveys have been conducted at the NNSS since the 1960s; what was unusual about this mission was that the team conducted aerial radiological surveys using a sUAS, commonly known as a drone, and a lightweight yet sturdy radiation detector. The use of unmanned aircraft can augment existing aerial radiation detection capabilities because an unmanned aircraft can fly much lower and slower than a manned aircraft, enabling the team to collect more detailed radiation measurements and geographical information. A sUAS can also maneuver into an area that would be unthinkable for a manned aircraft to access and collect data.

The gamma imager was attached to the hexacopter and flown over the Sedan and Baneberry nuclear test craters. (The Sedan test was conducted on July 6, 1962, and the Baneberry test took place on December 18, 1970.) The gamma imager weighs about 10 pounds, and it fits into a volume of 18 by 3 by 4 inches. The hexacopter is about the size of a card table, and the gross weight is about 50 pounds with the payload and fuel. At sea level, it can fly for up to two hours at a time, but at the altitude of the NNSS, the time is limited to approximately 30 to 40 minutes. The sUAS flew over a distance of a few kilometers to complete the surveys. Data collected during the surveys demonstrated that greater sensitivity and geographical resolution can be achieved with UAS technology.

In early 2020, the team revisited the Sedan and Baneberry craters to obtain more measurements. During this visit, the team also traveled to the Palanquin nuclear test crater (the Palanquin test took place on April 14, 1965) to collect additional survey and imaging data. Watch the small UAS in action in this YouTube video.


The M in STEM: Mathematics at the NNSS

Marylesa Howard Mathematics at NNSS
Principal Scientist Marylesa Howard (front row, second from left) serves as a Ph.D. advisor to students from universities across the nation who are pursuing their mathematics research at the NNSS.

National security may not be the first career field that comes to mind for mathematics students. However, mathematicians play a vital role in experiment design and analysis at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), and they’re working to ensure younger generations know how their skillset can influence work within the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Applied mathematics is exercised at the NNSS in multiple facets, including radiography; multimodal sensing, which utilizes multiple layers of detection techniques to grid activity (in this case, radiological activity); experimental and optical diagnostics; and MIE scattering, which uses light lasers to make determinations about elements used in experiments. Data from these methods are used to make decisions for the Stockpile Stewardship program, which ensures the nation’s nuclear stockpile remains safe, reliable and secure through subcritical science experiments. Data are also used for Nuclear Nonproliferation programs, which work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapon technologies.

“There’s always someone needing something analyzed,” said Marylesa Howard, NNSS signal processing and applied mathematics scientist. “We find math in every place we look. There’s a lot coming down the pipeline that we can start getting involved in by spreading our bandwidth and our depth of knowledge.”

Since 2015, Howard has served with the Mathematical Association of America’s Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences program. As an industrial liaison, she educates university students and faculty about research opportunities at the NNSS. One challenge is breaking down perceptions that pursing statistics automatically means a career in actuary work at places like insurance companies or Wall Street. Another is recruiting younger generations quickly enough to have crossover time with careered NNSS scientists and mathematicians.

“It’s essential to capture as much existing knowledge now to pass on to the younger workforce,” said Howard. “We are in such a specialized field of nuclear science where most people don’t have that breadth of knowledge when they come in from school. You have to start training the next generation now to glean as much knowledge and wisdom from the senior employees before they retire.”

The NNSS works to recruit candidates from across the nation for progressive internship opportunities that are the foundation for a career. These include undergraduate, cooperative education (enabling students to earn academic credit through their work at the NNSS), post-baccalaureate, graduate research assistant and post-doctoral programs.

Maggie Lund Mathematics at NNSS
NNSS Senior Scientist Maggie Lund speaks to the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada about her work as a radiographer analyst at the NNSS’ U1a Complex underground laboratory, where experiments using Cygnus (pictured, right) are conducted. “We do so many things at the Site and collaborate with so many laboratories,” says Lund. “I love it here in Nevada. I can’t see myself ever leaving.”

Former intern Maggie Lund began her journey in mathematics with the Site in 2014 while between undergraduate and graduate school; she is now a senior scientist at the NNSS and conducts radiography analysis using Cygnus, a dual-axis flash X-ray radiography system located at the NNSS’ U1a Complex. By compiling series of images produced from Cygnus, Lund is able to reconstruct what occurs during subcritical experiments and use statistical models to compute material densities.

“My plan for life was not at all to go in this route,” said Lund. “It was serendipitous, really. I hadn’t even heard of the NNSS until one of my computer science professors announced the NNSS was looking for interns. It was my first taste of real research. It was so cool to work on one of these projects with a team of mathematicians. To see a team of people create new methods and understand the physics in order to find solutions was entirely new to me. I knew I needed to be a part of this—I need to be out in the field doing these experiments.”

Lund returned to the NNSS during summers as she continued her education with her masters in statistics and doctorate in applied mathematics. During that time, she had her doctoral research funded by the NNSS and became a published author in the Journal of Applied Physics and Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ Journal on Computational Science and Engineering. Outside of the NNSS, Lund is working to inspire some of the community’s youngest leaders-to-be about possibilities through STEM. She recently spoke with the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada about the influential roles that women have at the NNSS.

“I think girls are now exposed to so many more new things than I was,” said Lund. “Young women today are exposed to people in the field who can help encourage them on the path that they’re already interested in. Mathematicians can do something other than teach.”

For students interested in pursuing an internship or career with the NNSS, Howard says key qualifications are having strong programming and linear algebra skills. She’s also looking for individuals who can speak about their discipline to various levels of an organization and make connections about how work integrates with other subject matter experts. Information for Student Programs at the NNSS can be found at https://www.nnss.gov/pages/NFO/MSTSStudentPrograms.html.

“Working at the NNSS has introduced me to so many different fields of science and engineering,” said Lund. “It has challenged me as a mathematician and professional scientist in so many ways. It is something that I would recommend to anyone.”


Connecting through COVID-19: NNSS M&O contractor donates $40,000 for Clark County students’ computer access

PEF donation thank you note
A note of thanks from a Clark County School District student who received a Google Chromebook. MSTS’ donation will support students who do not have access to the necessary technology required for distance learning.

As thousands of students face a new reality for the end of the academic year, Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) management and operating contractor Mission Support & Test Services (MSTS) is proud to make a donation of $40,000 to The Public Education Foundation in Nevada.

“It is amazing to see members of the community stepping up to help bridge the digital divide in such a critical moment for education,” said Clark County School District Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara. “The Nevada National Security Site is a tremendous partner to the Clark County School District as well as the entire community.”

An estimated one-third of Clark County School District’s 320,000 students do not have access to computers or the internet while at home. MSTS’ contribution will be used to purchase Google Chromebooks for students to be able to continue their education during the COVID-19 distance learning period, which began March 16. Other organizations, such as Cox Communications, have joined the effort by providing low-cost internet service to families in need.

“This is how communities come together,” said MSTS President Mark Martinez. “The NNSS and MSTS invest in our local students year-round and are highly interested in advancing STEM in our community. Donating Chromebooks to help Clark County students keep current during the pandemic was an easy decision.”

For more information about the NNSS’ support to Nevada, visit https://www.nnss.gov/docs/fact_sheets/DOENV_0491.pdf.


NNSS scientists represent at NNSA’s premier science council

Defense Programs Science Council
The NNSA Defense Programs Science Council
(Howard Bender is pictured second from left).

Following four years of service as the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) representative for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Defense Programs Science Council, Distinguished Scientist Howard Bender is passing the torch to Principal Scientist Marylesa Howard.

Created to explore science, technology and engineering opportunities for the NNSA, the Defense Programs Science Council is comprised of one representative from each NNSA production site and laboratory. Together, the team pursues science and technology best practices throughout the enterprise, analyzes stockpile planning and hedge strategies, and supports the development of the NNSA Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan.

Bender was appointed to the role in 2016 as the first-ever NNSS representative.

“I’d like to think of the science council as more of a scientific and technical working group that advises the head of Defense Programs,” said Bender. “The group is tasked with looking at significant current and future challenges to the weapons program. Each of us has our own part in the weapons program, and we would tackle those as a think tank. Each of us brought our own perspective and knowledge base to the issue we were asked to look at.”

The council also supports NNSA’s nonproliferation and counterintelligence missions, and it collaborates with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies that have a role in NNSA’s Defense Programs activities.

“I see the group as helping to transform the complex and stockpile stewardship in the future,” said Bender. “I think it’s going to be instrumental in architecture for future stockpile efforts and other national security matters revolving around the weapons program.”

Marylesa Howard joining Defense Programs Science Council
Marylesa Howard, recipient of PECASE.

The council, which meets monthly in addition to twice a year at NNSA headquarters in Washington, D.C., was re-established in 2010 to investigate and explore cross-cutting science, technology and engineering issues and opportunities that have an impact across the NNSA.

“I think it’s one of the most phenomenal working groups I’ve been a part of in my career,” said Bender, who worked with NNSA and NNSS leadership to recommend Howard as his successor. “Someone else needs a chance at this.”

Howard, a signal processing and applied mathematics scientist, comes to the NNSA Defense Programs Science Council after receiving the United States government’s highest honor for scientists who demonstrate exceptional leadership in independent research careers – the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) – in July 2019.

“I would like to bring access and visibility to NNSS resources and capabilities, as well as some of our less-visible talents,” said Howard. “If the science council has a need that could utilize our resources and knowledge, I would love to connect the dots.”

Having already cultivated a network of peers in the NNSA through her career and PECASE, Howard says she looks forward to continuing to build opportunities throughout the enterprise.

“We have been putting together plans for how our NNSS analysis team can expand our role in future subcritical experimental needs at the labs. I’m really excited to see the doors that open up for our team and the new collaborative relationships we build with the laboratories.”

For more information about Defense Programs, see https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/missions/maintaining-stockpile.