Program senses danger both above and below ground
October 13, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Besides detecting and defending against enemy attacks, members of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command also help America and the world detect natural dangers, as well.
SMDC assumed responsibility for the Nuclear Arms Control Technology Program when the mission was transferred from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to the Army in 2002. Under the NACT program, SMDC acts on behalf of the U.S. government.
"Our primary function is to detect a nuclear event anywhere in the world," said Mark Pickens, SMDC Nuclear Arms Control Technology Division chief. "We can detect if a nuclear event happens atmospherically, underwater or underground. Wherever there is a nuclear event anywhere in the world, our systems have to be able to detect it.
"There are 321 monitoring stations throughout the world and they have to be operational 98 percent of the time," he added.
SMDC is responsible for site preparation, construction, documentation, preparing for United Nations certification, operation, maintenance, sustainment and life-cycle management of 37 international monitoring system stations from "cradle-to-grave."
The IMS stations are at various locations from the continental U.S. to Alaska, Midway, Guam, Wake Island, Hawaii, Antarctica and Puerto Rico. The monitor types range from seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic, radionuclide, as well as a laboratory.
"All the data we receive is in real-time," Pickens said. "All of our sensors are passive sensors that sit out there recording data and then send it via satellite to Vienna, Austria, and there they analyze it."
The NACT Program reports to the treaty manager at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The command also works closely with other components of the Arms Control Interagency including the Department of the Army, Department of Energy, National Labs and the Department of State.
The NACT program was formed after the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was opened for signatures in September 1996. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization created the international monitoring system to detect, locate and identify explosions of at least one kiloton detonation within the atmosphere, underground and underwater.
While the technology is centered on monitoring the planet for nuclear explosions, the data also offers a wide range of applications that are able to contribute to sustainable development, knowledge expansion and human welfare.
Disaster mitigation is a priority when looking at potential applications. After the tsunami caused by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia in December 2004, the CTBTO's members allowed the use of verification data for disaster mitigation purposes for the first time.
"In addition to our primary mission, there are a lot of potential civilian and scientific applications," Pickens said. "With all of these sensors throughout the world, we can see tsunamis coming, when volcanoes erupt and earthquakes happen, as well as ice shelves falling off and other events."
As studies continue and technology advances in detection analysis, potential civil and scientific applications of the four monitoring technologies; seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide, have the potential to save lives during disasters.
Seismic technology can help in rapidly acquiring and disseminating data on earthquakes, in particular on potentially tsunami-generating earthquakes and to assist disaster management and response efforts. Seismic data can also assist in plane crash investigations by providing precise data on time and location.
Hydroacoustic data can support research on ocean processes and marine life, such as whale populations and migration patterns. Shipping safety can also be improved by monitoring underwater volcanic explosions and ice shelf break-up, which creates large icebergs.
Infrasound technology can help detect volcanic explosions and thus contribute to aviation safety. It can also assist in detecting a range of other man-made and natural events on the Earth's surface, including chemical explosions, meteors entering the atmosphere and severe storm systems.
"If you think about it, every thing in the world makes a sound," Pickens said. "So we figure if you can hear it, you can detect it. The hard part is differentiating one item from another one. And we are trying to figure out if something is an elephant walking across the ground or if it is enemy soldiers."
Radionuclide technology can contribute to the research of worldwide background radiation levels. Data from radionuclide monitoring stations can provide critical information on nuclear accidents and assist in providing rapid measurement of radioactivity to map the dispersion of radioactive material.
"Radionuclide sensors are like big vacuum cleaners, they suck in radiation," Pickens said. "It can detect if there is radiation in the air. After the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, we were able to track the plumes as they came across the ocean. We could tell how much radiation was going to hit the U.S.
"This is just one of the ways we let the nation know we were safe," he added.