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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

UC Davis’s McClellan Nuclear Research Center helps send NASA spacecraft beyond the moon

The center’s large-scale imaging abilities at the facility contributed to rocket testing and completion of the Artemis I mission


By LILLY ACKERMAN — science@theaggie.org 


UC Davis’s McClellan Nuclear Research Center (MNRC) played an important role in NASA’s recent Artemis I mission, which launched the unmanned Orion spacecraft into space to test its safety. In part, it will serve as the foundation for future human deep-space travel and moon exploration. 

The MNRC, located in Sacramento, is capable of neutron radiography, a type of non-destructive imaging that utilizes a neutron beam to generate images. Neutron radiography is particularly useful for imaging explosives and looking for elements that might clog jet engines. 

According to Sandra Warren, a research and development engineer for the MNRC, this center is unique in its capability to image objects of very large size — even as large as rocket parts — which is why it was a good choice for NASA. 

The MNRC imaged separation joint assemblies for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which launched the Orion spacecraft. These elements use precise explosives to “kick off” the initial boosters for the rocket, leaving the Orion spacecraft to begin its journey to orbit Earth and eventually to venture to the far side of the moon. 

“[The separation joint assemblies] are sent into space attached to different segments that are later on going to separate,” Warren said. “It’s very important that they work at the moment they’re supposed to work.”

The explosion needed to be perfectly timed  both for the sake of the Artemis I mission and the human crew that will be manning the spacecraft during future missions. 

After extensive testing at the MNRC and many other research centers throughout its development, the SLS rocket was launched, and the Orion spacecraft successfully made a nearly 26-day trip into space. It returned to Earth with a splash into the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11, 2022, after traveling around the far side of the moon. 

Wesley Frey, director of the MNRC, explained the importance of the mission for the public. 

“An enormous amount of our computer technology, communication technology, energy technology — a lot of it has its roots in the Apollo program, and [the] Gemini and Mercury [programs] before that,” Frey explained. “They are very expensive, but the benefit to the public is often very substantial, and it ends up being a good investment.”

This is only the beginning for NASA’s Artemis program; the next steps include sending humans back to the moon and establishing a base camp to allow for further exploration and research, as well as working toward sending the first humans to Mars. 

UC Davis’ MNRC will likely remain in collaboration with NASA, as it is uniquely able to image the large parts that they use to build spacecrafts. 

“To see the progress of the program is really exciting,” Warren said. “And I hope that there will be more excitement when we actually land on the moon again.”


Written by: Lilly Ackerman — science@theaggie.org