Detecting dirty bomb material with ESA gamma-ray technology

Domodedovo Customs
Border control of radioactive materials
30 October 2008

Thanks to experience gained from working with ESA on its Integral spacecraft, a British company has developed a gamma-ray detection device using similar technology as used in the gamma-ray instrument onboard the Integral astronomy satellite to detect and identify the radioactive material mixed with conventional explosives in 'dirty bombs'.

ESA has supported the development of technology for gamma-ray astronomy for more than 40 years. Integral, ESA’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory launched in 2002, is now detecting some of the most energetic radiation to be found in space, such as that from gamma-ray bursts, supernovas and black holes in the Milky Way and distant galaxies at the edge of the observable Universe.

Artist's view of Integral
Integral, ESA’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory

A similar gamma-ray detection technology is now being used by the company to develop and commercialise radiation detection and identification technology. The company was formed in 2002 and with support from the UK technology transfer initiative and ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office it was put in contact with a world-leading provider of explosives trace and X-ray detection systems.

Most radioactive sources produce gamma rays of various energies and intensities. By detecting and analysing them, a gamma-energy spectrum can be produced – a kind of radiation fingerprint – to identify the substance and the quantity.

Portable detection device

High-energy polarised emission from Crab Nebula
Gamma-ray emission from Crab Nebula detected by ESA's Integral satellite

In 2006, the companies’ partnership led to a contract from the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office of the US Department of Homeland Security for a next-generation radiation gamma-ray detection and identification system. The contract has a potential total value, including options, of US$222 million (€140 million).

The detection of illicit traffic in radioactive materials that could be used to make dirty bombs is a high priority for national security in the US.

Threatening nuclear materials must be identified from a range of natural radioactive materials such as clay tiles, ceramics and even bananas, as well as from a range of legally transported radioactive materials such as medical isotopes.

Effective screening devices are required for personnel and freight at ports and borders. The detection and identification of dangerous radioactive material has to be reliable and quick so as not to disrupt the normal flow of commerce.

Portable Radiation Detection System
Portable Radiation Detection System

The companies are developing a handheld and backpack Human Portable Radiation Detection System, tailored to meet these criteria. The device features space radiation detection hardware and signal processing software for use by emergency services, border patrol agents, customs and coast guard officers, and other law enforcement personnel.

The British company is the technology partner and provided the radiation detection and identification sub-system. The unit includes gamma, neutron and Geiger-Müller (GM) detectors, and can identifying highly enriched uranium, plutonium and other radioactive materials, even in very small quantities. Expertise in modelling gamma-ray detectors from Southampton University improved significantly through the company's participation in developing of the mass-model for the Integral spacecraft was used in the developing of the portable radiation detection system.

The detectors can identify and determine the location of incoming radiation and also reliably discriminate between normally occurring radioactive material and potential threats.

ESA's Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO)

The main mission of the TTPO is to facilitate the use of space technology and space systems for non-space applications and to demonstrate the benefit of the European space programme to European citizens. The Office is responsible for defining the overall approach and strategy for the transfer of space technologies including the incubation of start-up companies and their funding. For more information, please contact:

ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office
European Space Agency ESA
Keplerlaan 1, 2200 AG Noordwijk ZH
The Netherlands
Phone: +31 565 6208
Fax: +31 565 6635
Email: ttp @ esa.int
Website: http://www.esa.int/ttp

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