Scientists use 'trinitite' from 1945 to help decode nuclear blasts
Samples taken from the US site of the Trinity atomic bomb test allow scientists to better understand how to track the source of a detonated nuclear weapon.
It's called trinitite: a glassy byproduct of the searing heat that cooked the desert at the White Sands Proving Ground in 1945 when the United States conducted its first atomic-bomb test.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Nuclear Weapons
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now, researchers have taken a fresh look at this detritus and found that they can glean the kind of information that could be valuable in figuring out how a detonated nuclear device was built and perhaps where key ingredients came from.
Such a capability has long been a focus of efforts to improve scientists' ability to trace the origin of a device used in a terrorist nuclear attack. But much of the work done so far has been by US weapons scientists who have been reluctant to speak in much detail about how well their tools work.
Now, a team of scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has demonstrated an ability to analyze post-blast debris for potentially valuable evidence, and has openly published the results.
The next step is to analyze a wider variety of post-blast debris, "then we can decide what we really need to know" to make the most out of the analytical approach the team used, he says.
Nuclear-weapons scientists have analyzed post-explosion debris for decades, but usually with an eye toward evaluating the effectiveness of the weapons they've built, or in the case of above-ground tests by another country, to determine what the explosive yield was, Dr. Fahey says. Such has been the case with trinitite.
But in speaking with weapons scientists, he says he learned that "they never bothered to ask the question: If I didn't know what happened, how could I figure it out?" he says.
Fahey, whose background is in teasing from meteorites chemical clues to their origins, adds that the question is one cosmochemists try to answer all the time.
He and his team opted to apply the question to trinitite to see what it could tell them about the "gadget," the plutonium bomb Manhattan Project scientists perched on a 100-foot tower and detonated on July 16, 1945. With one exception, he says, the tools for analyzing the sample are available in any reasonably well-appointed geochemistry lab.