Some NASA spacecraft, those which operate on the surface of other planets or are too far from the sun, require the use of radioisotope power systems (fueled with plutonium dioxide) to produce electricity and heat. In the unlikely event of an early launch accident, these DOE-provided power systems could encounter hot conditions beneath solid propellant fires with the potential to release the nuclear fuel into the environment. Additional data on solid propellant fires was needed to better understand the risks of launching these kinds of missions.
Sandia developed and deployed new, high-temperature measurement techniques including
- encapsulated witness materials,
- intrinsic thermocouples, and
- post-burn Raman spectroscopy analysis
to provide temperature measurements from 2500–3100 K that can be used for safety analysis. Measurements in this range could not be achieved with commercially available technology.
These data are a part of NASA’s launch-vehicle databook and will be used in safety analyses for future launches of these systems. Sandia also conducts the safety analysis of these missions for DOE. The safety analyses are critical input to the evaluation and approval process by the White House for every launch.