PSI imaging helps to control rocket launches

The neutron source of the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) is being used to screen pyrotechnic components in rockets. The neutron imaging ensures that the components ignite within the right hundredth of a second.

PSI scientists Christian Gruenzweig, David Mannes und Jan Hovind.
PSI scientists Christian Gruenzweig, David Mannes und Jan Hovind. (Image credit: Paul Scherrer Institut/Markus Fischer)

Pyrotechnic components used in the booster rockets developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) act as fuse cords and can trigger a whole host of desired effects, as outlined by the PSI in a press release. The press release explains further that explosive compounds must be installed on the components in defect-free manner so that the acceleration stage is triggered at precisely the correct hundredth of a second, for example. However, testing these components, which can only be burnt once, is equally as impossible as using x-rays to inspect the metallic components.

Nevertheless, the neutron source of the PSI helps to depict the inside of pyrotechnic components so that they can be investigated without destroying them, the press release explains. After all, neutrons are able to penetrate the majority of metals almost unhindered. “The explosive, on the other hand, contains hydrogen atoms that significantly attenuate the neutron beam and thus make it show up as a dark contrast”, commented Christian Grünzweig, physicist in the Research Group for Neutron Imaging and Applied Materials at PSI, in the press release. “In short: Explosives behind metal can only be made visible with neutrons”.

The PSI explains that neutron imaging is carried out at only a few other research institutes in the world. The ESA relies on the neutron source of the PSI to screen the components of its rockets. The elements used in the successful introduction of the Ariane 5 launch rocket on June 20 were also examined at PSI.

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