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Vending Machine Takeover

I grew up watching The Jetsons. I loved the way they zipped from one place to another in their sky-cars. For me, growing up I always pictured that we would have flying cars in the year 2000. We all know that didn’t happen.

The other thing that impressed me was their food dispenser. Yeah, my priorities are right. Flee and eat! Anyway, they would just walk up to the machine and tell it what they wanted and Zippo! Food served, hot and fresh with no mess. “Look, Ma! No dishes!”

We had vending machines in those days for candy, snacks, drinks (mostly soda), and coffee. The coffee machine always impressed me the most because it MADE you the mixture you wanted: Black, cream, sugar, etc.

A month or two ago they announce a beer vending machine, my first thought was: “what about a Vodka and cranberry!”

Seriously, the next wave of future gadgets and gizmos will probably be more advanced vending machines. We already rent our movies this way and buy other merchandise this way, so why not fresh cooked food?

Man, why did it have to be my favorite food? I love pizza! I can eat it every day and not get tired of it. What is fascinating is this machine actually mixes the flour and water, kneads the dough, adds the sauce and topping. It then cooks the pizza for about three minutes, drops it into a 10.5” box and spits it out to the awaiting hungry person (that would be me).

I sincerely hope it tastes good. The problem. . .I love pizza so much I’d find myself passing a machine and ordering a ‘pie and sooner or later my middle will start looking like a pie!

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The Next Terrorist Weapon. . .Insects?

On Tuesday, August 23, 2011 U.S. Customs and Border Patrol intercepted the feared Khapra Beetle. This beetle is not native to the United States, it is extremely hard to kill and could potentially damage this country’s grain industry. The beetle larvae was caught at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in bags of rice. Unfortunately, this is not the first discovery pertaining to this insect.

So what would happen if such an insect escaped and began to flourish in America? “It’s going to disrupt our economy, because of the volume of grain and wheat exported by farmers,” Customs spokesman Brian Bell said. “Countries know they’re getting a clean product (from the U.S.).”

The beetle is 2 to 3 mm long, and can damage up to 70% of grain. “It can cause intestinal problems if eaten,” officials admitted.

These beetles can survive for a long time without any source of food or water, and can nestle in spices, packaged food and in stored grain. These tiny creatures can hide in the smallest cracks and crevices which makes them very hard to kill with chemicals.

So far from January 2011 to June 26th, there have been 100 khapra beetle interceptions throughtout the country. That is 15 times higher than the reports taken from 2007 to 2009!

The beetle has infested us before. Actually, in 1953 they discovered the khapra beetles in California. It cost millions of dollars and a 13 year fight to eliminate them as they spread from California to Arizona and infested farming storage bins, warehouses and mills.

So what stops a terrorist cell from switching tactics from nuclear to insect? If the goal is an economic hardship they could damage not only the U.S. but the entire world as we are still the leading exporter of grain.

Luckily we have hard working men and women watching our boards and customs, they intercepted 92,476 foreign plants, pathogens, invasive insects and foreign species last year! We seldom think of these hard-working Americans, but their jobs help keep us and our food safe.

But it only takes a few invasive insects to wreck havoc on us. . .

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2011 in New Article, Science

 

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U.S. Earthquake Activity

Two rare earthquakes struck the US yesterday in areas that have not seen earthquakes in ages. Luckily no fatalities took place as the east coast’s building codes are not made to withstand earthquakes, they are geared more for hurricanes. Here is a list of all of the activity recorded on August 23, 2011.

MAG

LOCATION

      5.8   8 km ( 5 mi) SSW of Mineral, VA

3.7

  52 km ( 32 mi) SE of Port Graham, AK

3.9

  14 km ( 9 mi) SSW of Cokedale, CO

3.2

  30 km ( 19 mi) SW of Arctic Village, AK

3.2

  9 km ( 6 mi) WSW of Cokedale, CO

3.8

  5 km ( 3 mi) S of Cokedale, CO

3.0

  37 km ( 23 mi) NE of Rawhide, NV

3.2

  2 km ( 2 mi) WSW of Starkville, CO

3.5

  10 km ( 6 mi) WSW of Cokedale, CO

5.3

  11 km ( 7 mi) SW of Cokedale, CO

3.6

  45 km ( 28 mi) N of Settlement, British Virgin Islands

3.0

  13 km ( 8 mi) SW of Cokedale, CO

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2011 in New Article, Science

 

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Is Anti-Virus Software Foolproof?

The term Anti-Virus is a well-known word from toddlers to seniors, and almost every computer around the globe has an anti-virus program installed in it. These programs locate themselves in the task bar and make us feel safe. Actually, it projects security so we can surf-the-web without a worry.

Most people believe that if they have an anti-virus program installed that they cannot be infected by a virus. But are the anti-virus programs really foolproof? The answer is no. So do we need these programs? That answer is yes. They are far from foolproof but they add much needed protection. Yes, even with the best anti-virus program on the market, you can still obtain a virus.

First, we must eliminate the use of “free” anti-virus programs up-front. These “freeware” programs do not give you the best protection. The term free does not include virus protection that you may receive for free from your cable company, financial institution or some other-like source. Some companies do provide these products for “free” because it is in their best interest to do so. By “free” we mean software that you are downloading from the web.

Anti-virus programs use a couple of strategies when looking for worms, viruses, malware, spyware and other malicious programs. The most common way is the dictionary approach, or signature-based method.

Every anti-virus program contains enormous volumes of virus signatures, and they categorize these based on the threat level they pose. Think of this as a library working with the Dewey-Decimal System.

A virus library works in a similar fashion. When you download a program, your anti-virus program analyzes the code and cross-references it with the known signatures in its library. If a piece of code matches the file, it is immediately flagged so appropriate action can be performed. The first action is to stop the virus from replicating itself. Depending on the threat level your anti-virus may repair the file, quarantine it, or delete it. Anti-virus software patrols the computer, just like librarians police the library.

Naturally, there are problems with this type of protection. The signature-based method is only as good as its library of defined code.

As many computer users find computer jargon confusing, lets look at a real life situation. There is an outbreak in Northern Africa with several fatalities. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is called. The CDC sends out field doctors to assess the threat level and collect samples. Those samples are sent to the lab in Atlanta. A team of technicians diagnoses the organism, they find out how it works, then figure out the solution to eliminate the virus and repair the damage it caused. Once this is done, the results are logged and sent off to help fight the virus.

The anti-virus software works the same way. A threat takes place, the threat is investigated, a solution is created and its findings are filed for future reference.

But there is a problem. In our real life scenario there were fatalities. There is also casualties in the virtual world. Someone needs to be infected in order for the virus library to work, just as a person needs to catch the flu in order for a vaccine to be made.

The next common method is called the Heuristic-based detection. This type of detection works on a program that is acting suspiciously which might indicate a potential threat.

If you were in a crowded airport in Miami, Florida and saw a man walking toward you wearing an overcoat and carrying a black briefcase, your mind would automatically indicate a possible threat as this person is acting suspiciously.

The anti-virus is doing the same thing. It is policing all the programs running in your computer and is looking for something that is trying to write itself to an executable (.exe) program. Once it tries to do this it can be contained and dealt with.

In some instances the anti-virus software may capture the virus and move it to a secure “virtual” environment and study what the virus does. Does it have malicious intentions, or is its behavior legitimate. Perhaps that person in the overcoat isn’t a suicide bomber, he might have a reason for dressing so warmly.

The developers of anti-virus software have to constantly update their systems in order to offer their customers a safe level of security. Their biggest problem is fighting these viruses as quickly as possible, and that is no easy feat!

Born is the term Zero Day, or Zero Hour. These terms were coined because a newly released virus or malware or any malicious program will cause havoc and there will be casualties before the new program is captured and categorized. There must be guinea pigs in order for the masses to survive these attacks. It is inevitable, at some point someone, somewhere, will contract the virus. Malicious software is being created every day with the sole job of bypassing your security system.

Zero day threats damage thousands of computers before they can be identified and categorized. Once its signature is filed the anti-virus developers have to create an update for its customers. This may take up to several days. In this time millions of computers are vulnerable to attack.

That is why you, the computer user, must always be alert for suspicious behavior. You have to be careful when downloading programs, opening emails and opening pop-ups. It is important to pay attention.

We all look both ways before crossing a busy intersection, so think twice and read the disclaimers before downloading a file. It really is the same thing, if you don’t look both ways before crossing the road, you may be potentially hurt or even killed. A virus computer virus can hurt you financially, personally and can even kill your computer.

Protect yourself as much as possible. Many anti-virus programs have a scheduled day and time they scan for new updates, this can also be done manually. You should run an update and quick scan of your computer every day before you access the internet. It may take ten minutes, but you have added another level of protection to your computer.

Again, this will not protect you 100%, but will help increase your odds of remaining safe. As more and more people purchase computers, there are more and more bad hackers being born every day. They have to become more creative than their competition and the anti-virus companies.

Behold the new era of viruses that can mutate themselves. These metamorphic viruses disguise themselves so they do not match any of the signatures in the library. Once in your computer they will mate with other files, just like human children, these offspring are slightly different from the parent, and so they can continue to avoid the pattern recognition of the anti-virus software.

Or how about viruses that enter your computer in thousands of harmless code. Once the pieces are in your computer they begin to find one another and assemble into several slightly different viruses with the same intent.

So now you know a bit more about how anti-virus programs and how viruses themselves work. Stay alert and always do a manual virus update before accessing the web. It does help.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2011 in Computer, Desktop, Laptop, New Article

 

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Are You Buying A Car Online? Read This FIRST!

The Internet is a wonderful creation for so many reasons. But it also has its dark side. Kind of like the moon, we only see one side, the bright side. The dark side is hidden from us and that is what the internet is like.

The internet is a place where one can buy just about anything made. I sometimes pre-order my groceries online and they are ready for me when I arrive at the store. I book my airfare, hotels and make dinner reservations. Many of my other purchases are made online as well; like my books, computer supplies, pet supplies. The list goes on and on.

My purchases are made on secure websites and are conducted lawfully. Unfortunately, the internet is a breading ground for criminals and they place themselves into this huge marketplace and scam thousands of people every day.

In America a few days ago the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) issued an alert about a cyber scam that is aimed at people buying vehicles online.

Basically what these scoundrels are doing is creating an ad on a legitimate website and listing vehicles at great prices, generally just below the market value. As a buyer you write to the seller via email and the seller responds likewise. Here the scam starts to mimic millions of other scams: the seller responds with a long-winded story of their bad luck and need to sell the vehicle quickly, that is why the price is so good.

Now the seller requests the buyer to move the transaction to the website of another online company, this is for the buyer’s security. An offer is also made that offers the buyer a protection
plan in the name of a major Internet company (e.g., eBay). Through this new website the buyer receives an invoice with instructions to wire the funds to an account.

As more and more scammers hit this expanding cyber-crime market, they become more creative in an attempt to out beat other scammers. In a new twist, the criminals pose as a company representative in a live chat to answer questions. This forms a feeling of security which breaks down your vigilance.

Once the funds are wired, the buyer may be asked by the seller to fax a receipt to show that the transaction has taken place. And then the seller has the buyer send a fax receipt to the seller and the seller and buyer agree upon a time for the delivery of the vehicle.

So what is actually happening is a complete fraud that is designed to break down the buyers normal weariness. The original ad that was placed was phony, there never was a vehicle for sale. When the buyer was asked to move to another, more secure website for security, is either a phony copy of a well known website or actually a hijacked website. In other words, the buyer found the ad on Craig’s List. The buyer is asked to move to a site that resembles Ebay.

The site that looks like Ebay is actually created by the scammer so it is easier for them to conduct business with the buyer. Although the protection plan is just as fake as the vehicle for sale, what this does is break the buyer down again, this time building trust in the seller.
The fax transmission also builds a feeling of trust, but actually the fax is the sellers proof that the transaction was made and when the funds will be available. The meeting date will be made for a time after the funds are cleared.

They buyers will show up to the appointment on time, or early but will not find a seller. By the time the buyer realizes what happened the criminals and the buyers hard earned money are long gone.

The FBI has listed Red flags for consumers:

  • Cars are advertised at too-good-to-be true prices;
  • Sellers want to move transactions from the original website to another site;
  • Sellers claim that a buyer protection program offered by a major Internet company covers an auto transaction conducted outside that company’s website;
  • Sellers refuse to meet in person or allow potential buyers to inspect the car ahead of time;
  • Sellers who say they want to sell the car because they’re in the U.S. military about to be deployed, are moving, the car belonged to someone who recently died, or a similar story;
  • Sellers who ask for funds to be wired ahead of time.

The FBI reports the number of complaints from 2008 through 2010, IC3 has received nearly 14,000 complaints from consumers who have been victimized, or at least targeted, by these scams. Of the victims who actually lost money, the total dollar amount is staggering: nearly $44.5 million.

If you think you’ve been victimized by an online auto scam, file a complaint with IC3. Once complaints are received and analyzed, IC3 forwards them as appropriate to a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2011 in Internet Scams, New Article

 

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Rouge Programs “scareware”

What exactly is a Rouge Program and how does it work? A Rouge Program, also know as “scareware”, are programs designed to bypass or disable the computer’s anti-virus software.

Most Rogue Programs express that they are legitimate, in reality they are imitations of real programs. For example: Microsoft Removal Tool is a real program. The Rouge version is MS Removal Tool.

They also use aggressive sales tactics that will include adware, or Trojan Viruses that display fake security alerts. Many of these program claim that they are sponsored by major companies and have won awards on their program.

What their ultimate goal is, is to convince you to purchase their award-winning software. The developers of these Rouge Programs need to sell as many copies of their program as quickly as possible.

The most common way these programs operate is to display fake scanning results or highly exaggerated results. They do this by performing a fake scan in order to make you download their program. When the actual scan is completed, they will display a list of files and Windows Registry keys flagged as threats. Meanwhile, most of these infections the Rouge Program created and installed in your system in order to trick you into purchasing their ‘licensed software’.

Unfortunately, there are a few legitimate companies that are actually quite popular in today’s market and they use this form of scare tactic. Once purchased the software may protect you. However, it is hard to determine which is real and which is fake. But any company that uses scareware tactics is not worth betting on to protect you or your data.

The internet is mostly used to surf for specific information, like: the news, videos, pictures, etc. Rouge Programs place themselves strategically across the web in order to get the most clicks.  For the sake of this article, let’s pretend that we are helping our son browse the Internet for specific information on dinosaurs so he can complete his report on-time. By “on-time” we are talking about tomorrow, because like any kid, critical reports tend to magically find themselves at the extreme bottom of the to-do List.

Before we take our seat in front of the computer our vigilance for potential problems are clouded by our rush to complete the task before bedtime. We type in “Dinosaurs” and begin opening links to ferret out the information we so desperately need.

The first search proves fruitless. We scan the search list again and click on a likely link. Suddenly a new window flashes open and it looks exactly like Windows “My Computer” screen. It shows the computer scanning the hard drives. Beside the drive letter is red text indicating how many viruses are being found. The numbers are staggering as they rapidly increase before our eyes.

Now the fear kicks in! How much data will be lost? Will the computer be useless? Is personal information being stolen? Will I lose all of my photos?

The scan completes and the program asks if you want to remove the infections. Our heart is pumping, and our skin is damp with perspiration. Of course we want to clean the infections! We click the button.

Unfortunately, this is where the fatal mistake is made. Can you see the judgement error? The way a Rouge Program or “Scareware” works is by using fear to cloud your judgement. These programs are tricky, they appear genuine and they promote a feeling of safety.

The first mistake was made by believing that our hard drive was being scanned. This is the most common ploy used. The screen that appears to be the “My Computer” screen is nothing more than an elaborate website carefully crafted to look and feel like the “My Computer” window. In this stage the program has absolutely no access to the computer’s drives.

The second mistake is not trusting the anti-virus software that is installed in the computer. Any authentic anti-virus program would have picked up these infections. Your computer simply cannot have dozens of infections, let alone thousands without the anti-software being aware of it.

The fatal mistake was made by clicking the button to clean out the infections. The moment this button is pressed we gave permission to the Rouge Program to download its files into our system. Once completed the Rouge Program will announce that it cleaned some of the viruses but you will need to pay them in order to complete the cleaning process.

When the Rouge Program appeared to be scanning and cleaning your drives, it actually installed some files that have disabled the anti-virus software from running. It also shut off all other security programs like anti-malware and anti-spyware. Additionally, it has disabled all internet browsers so they cannot access the internet. Some Rouge Programs will allow internet access, but disable the ability to download files, especially anti-virus downloads.

At this point the Rouge Program has taken the necessary steps to inhibit access to any program that has the potential to remove it. The program will also position itself in the startup sequence so it will be the first program that loads after the initial boot. Some advanced Rouge Programs will disable the ability to access Safe Mode and the ability to perform a System Restore.

Don’t feel powerless, there are things you can do in order to protect yourself from harm. Stay alert and aware while you surf the web. Trust the anti-virus that you have paid for to warn you of viruses. Most importantly, think twice, click nothing.

Huh?

Think twice. Click nothing.

No matter what happens on the web, you should never react before you think. If something does not seem right, or frightens you, the best thing to do is sit back and think. Ask yourself if you have an anti-virus program installed in your computer? Ask yourself if the anti-virus is up-to-date? Look at the screen, are you still on a webpage? Look at your programs in the task bar at the bottom of your screen, and you should recognize the programs listed. Do you recognize the name listed on the active window? Is it the name of your anti-virus program?

What should you click? Nothing. Do not click anything! Let go of the mouse. Rouge Programs are tricky.  They NEED you to click them. Avoid the desire to click the small red ‘x’ that we are so used to clicking to close a window. Sometimes these Rouge Program windows are click-sensitive, so anywhere you click will access the program. In order to close the window, use your keyboard and press Ctrl+W. This sequence will close the active window. Depending on your operating system, this feature may not work. Try one of the following: ALT+F4 or Ctrl+F4 or ALT+Spacebar to open the shortcut menu of the open window and then TYPE in the corresponding letter to close the window.

If this does not work, then try to use your mouse and access the start button. Then click shut down to shut off your computer. Understand that you will lose any unsaved data. If you can, save and close your programs, however, in most cases the Rouge Program will not allow you to.

If you cannot use the start button to shut down, try the Windows symbol on your keyboard. This should open the start button menu. If your mouse still does not work, then use the arrows on your keyboard to navigate. If you do not have a start button symbol, try Ctrl+Esc.

In the event this fails to work, press and hold the start button on your computer to force the machine to shut off. Use this only after you have exhausted all other means as this is not a healthy way to shut down on a continuous basis.

Once you restart the computer make sure you run a scan of your system using the anti-virus software you installed.

In the event you have installed a Rouge Program in your system and you cannot remove it, you should bring the unit to an experienced technician to remove the program and all malicious programs. Many of these programs are layered in a fashion so they continue to work even though you think you uninstalled them. Removing them from the surface does not necessarily mean you removed it from the startup and registry.

Remember: Think twice. Click nothing.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2011 in Computer, Desktop, Laptop, New Article

 

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Spaceships of the Future

One has to admit that these are very exciting times that we live in! Science and Technology continues to pour forth so fast that it leaves our minds spinning as we try to grasp the latest gizmos and gadgets. Because of this we tend to forget what other achievements are being made everyday. It is up to corporate America now to shuttle us back and forth to the moon and space stations, and it is up to NASA and other government facilities like the awe inspiring Los Alamos National Laboratory to get humans deeper into space. So thanks to all of those scientist who keep me up-to-date an allow me to share it with the world. Images and content used with permission.

Nuclear Rockets: Then and Now

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy in his address to Congress outlined a new and bold space program. What many Americans remember is Kennedy’s national goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” by the end of the decade. Few Americans remember that Kennedy also outlined an effort to go beyond the moon, perhaps to Mars and beyond.

In this issue of National Security Science, we tell the story of this lesser-known effort, one in which scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory successfully built and tested a variety of nuclear rockets. Although the program officially ended in 1972, research to further improve the basic design of nuclear rockets has continued in other organizations, with current designs based on the Pewee-2 engine (1969–1972) now having specific impulses of 925 seconds.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy in his address to Congress declared a national goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” by the end of the decade. From 1961 to 1975, America’s space program used Apollo spacecraft and Saturn rockets to explore the moon, establish the Skylab program, and support a joint United States–Soviet Union mission in 1975. Saturn rockets (Fig. 1) were chemically based, making them huge—the Saturn V rocket stood 111 meters (363 feet) tall. Fully fueled, the rocket had a total mass of 3,000 metric tons (6.5 million pounds).

Having missions successfully reach the moon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists and engineers set their sights on Mars and beyond. Their goal was to develop the technology to visit such faraway places, and Los Alamos would play a key role.

Although chemical rockets took astronauts to the moon and could take them to Mars, there are many drawbacks to the technology. For example, chemical engines produce relatively little power, making astronauts rely on planetary alignments, or “launch windows,” to provide an extra gravitational slingshot effect that helps catapult space vehicles into space. Moreover, chemical rockets are slow, making long trips to places like Mars impractical for manned missions.

A more feasible technology is nuclear propulsion. Nuclear rockets are more fuel efficient and much lighter than chemical rockets. As a result, nuclear rockets travel twice as fast as chemical-driven spacecraft. Thus, a nuclear rocket could make a trip to Mars in as little as four months, and a trip to Saturn in as little as three years (as opposed to seven years). Such condensed trip times would help reduce astronaut and instrument exposure to harmful radiation emitted from the cosmic rays and solar winds that permeate interplanetary space.

Fig. 1. The Apollo 11 lifts off. This Saturn V rocket was the first to land humans on the moon. NASA successfully launched 13 Saturn V rockets with no loss of crew or payload. This rocket remains one of the largest and most powerful launch vehicles ever brought to operational status (from the standpoint of height, weight, and payload). Image courtesy of NASA.

The concern with nuclear rocketry lies in the radioactive components of nuclear power and these inherent safety challenges. Such concern has discouraged, and even prevented, space programs from implementing nuclear-powered missions to Mars and beyond.

The Atomic Age

In 1945, the United States ushered in the Atomic Age by detonating two atomic weapons over Japan, thus hastening the end of World War II. For approximately four years only the United States possessed nuclear weapons, but in 1949 the Soviet Union successfully tested its own nuclear bomb, bringing about the beginning of what would eventually become the Cold War.

One of the principal problems related to early atomic weapons consisted of their delivery systems. These early atomic weapons weighed about five tons each, making it impossible for aircraft to carry them over intercontinental distances. Indeed, the B-29s that dropped the first weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki flew only a few hundred miles from Tinian Island to reach their targets in Japan. The radioactive components for the atomic weapons reached Tinian by ship.

To solve the problem of delivering nuclear weapons thousands of miles, the United States began to develop heavy-lift, long-range weapons-delivery systems. These systems included strategic bombers such as the Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” (Fig. 2), ground-based rockets, and nuclear-powered aircraft. The unique characteristics of these systems provide options for decision makers. Rockets provide prompt response (approximately 30 minutes) and superior accuracy. Whereas aircraft can be launched to demonstrate resolve and subsequently be recalled as events warrant. Another competing design was the nuclear ramjet, although this design did not come into being until the 1960s.

Fig. 2. Built by Convair, the B-36 "Peacemaker" was the first bomber capable of delivering all the nuclear weapons in the United States arsenal. Image courtesy of the United States Air Force.

Project Rover

From 1955 through 1972, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (as the Laboratory was known then) conducted Project Rover, a program whose goal was to develop the technology for a nuclear-thermal rocket for space applications. Project Rover was part of the NASA space program, with the nuclear reactor portion falling under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

The genesis of Project Rover can be traced to 1942, when scientists began to address the idea of using nuclear energy to propel an aircraft or rocket. These ideas were formulated soon after Enrico Fermi and his associates conducted the first successful test of a fission reactor. As early as 1944, scientists at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory and Los Alamos began to discuss the possibility of using a fission reactor to heat a gas to high temperatures and propel a rocket—the basic idea behind a “nuclear-thermal” rocket. These scientists published several reports that explored the potential for this type of rocket.

The reports attracted the attention of the United States Air Force, which funded secret, small-scale, studies of nuclear-thermal rockets at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, from 1947 to 1949. Interest in nuclear rockets waned until 1954, when Robert Bussard of Oak Ridge Laboratory (now Oak Ridge National Laboratory) published a detailed engineering study of several nuclear-thermal-rocket applications. The Air Force commissioned Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore (now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and others to perform more theoretical studies of nuclear-thermal-rocket performance.

Early in 1955, Los Alamos summarized its investigations in a now-declassified report, on nuclear-powered second stages for intercontinental ballistic missiles. The report touted the performance advantages of nuclear-powered rockets, which garnered support for materials research in the field. This report and similar information from Lawrence Livermore led to the start of serious nuclear-rocket-reactor work at both laboratories.

In 1956, Lawrence Livermore was redirected to work on nuclear ramjets, with Los Alamos continuing to develop rockets under Project Rover. As atomic weapons became smaller and lighter, chemical rockets became a viable delivery system. In 1957, the Air Force stated that nuclear rockets no longer had any military value and recommended that space applications be pursued for them instead.

Project Rover consisted of three principal phases: Kiwi (1955 to 1964), Phoebus (1964 to 1969), and Pewee (1969 to the project’s cancellation, at the end of 1972). Nuclear reactors for the Project Rover were assembled at Los Alamos’ Pajarito Site. For each engine there were actually two reactors built, one for “zero-power critical” experiments conducted at Los Alamos and another used for full-power testing at the former Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site). Fuel and internal engine components for the engines were fabricated in the Sigma complex at Los Alamos. Figures 3 and 4 show some of the reactors. The Project Rover illustration provides additional information for each phase.

Fig. 3. Robert Hanrahan stands between the Kiwi-A (left) and Phoebus-1 (right). Phoebus-1 is now at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. Hanrahan is now director of the Office of Nuclear Experiments for the National Nuclear Security Administration. Archival photo courtesy of Robert Hanrahan.

Fig. 2. Built by Convair, the B-36 "Peacemaker" was the first bomber capable of delivering all the nuclear weapons in the United States arsenal. Image courtesy of the United States Air Force.

NERVA: Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application

In 1961, NASA and the AEC embarked on a second nuclear-rocket program known as NERVA. Taking advantage of the knowledge acquired as scientists designed, built, and tested Project Rover research reactors, NERVA scientists and engineers worked to develop practical rocket engines that could survive the shock and vibration of a space launch. From 1964 to 1969, Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Aerojet-General Corporation built various NERVA reactors and rocket engines.

In 1969, NERVA’s successes prompted NASA-Marshall Space Flight Center director Wernher von Braun to propose sending 12 men to Mars aboard two rockets, each propelled by three NERVA engines (Fig. 5). The mission would launch in November 1981 and land on Mars in August 1982.

Fig. 5. A conceptual illustration of a spacecraft for a manned Mars mission proposed by NASA's Wernher von Braun in August 1969. Two spacecraft would make the trip in tandem, each one powered by three NERVA-type engines. Image courtesy of NASA.

Although the mission never took place, engines tested during that time met nearly all of NASA’s specifications, including those related to thrust, thrust-to-weight ratio, specific impulse, engine restart, and engine lifetime. When the Project Rover/NERVA program was canceled in 1972, the only major untested requirement was that a NERVA rocket engine should be able to restart 60 times and operate for a total of 10 hours.

There was one engine, however, that exceeded some NERVA specifications. Designed, built, and tested at Los Alamos, the Phoebus-2A Project Rover engine (Fig. 6) produced up to 4,000 megawatts of thermal power. In those terms, it was the most powerful nuclear propulsion reactor ever built.

Fig. 6. The Phoebus-2A being prepared for testing at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Richard Malenfant.

Nuclear-Thermal Reactors

During the Project Rover/NERVA projects, scientists conducted 22 major tests of nuclear-thermal-rocket engines (Fig. 7). Many of these tests explored potential solutions to complex problems that arise when using reactors to propel rockets with hot hydrogen. Significant issues with materials stability, compatibility, and corrosion beyond those encountered in terrestrial power reactors had to be addressed to produce practical rockets.

Fig. 7. The Kiwi-B4A reactor awaits testing at the Nevada Test Site in 1962. At the left is Norris Bradbury, Laboratory Director from 1940–1970.

The principal difference between reactors used for space propulsion and electricity generation is the temperature of the cores. A reactor core consists of (1) fuel elements that contain the radioactive material to produce fission; (2) structures designed to hold the fuel elements in place; (3) structures that control the reactor’s operation by absorbing, reflecting, or slowing (“moderating”) neutrons produced by the fission reactions; and (4) a cooling system. The cooling system or “working fluid” (a gas or liquid) absorbs heat produced by the fuel elements and transfers the heat or energy to other parts of the system to generate propulsion or electricity.

Figure 8 shows a simplified schematic of a nuclear power reactor. The schematic shows uranium fuel elements, which cause fission reactions. The radiation-protection barrier limits radiation exposure to plant workers and the environment.

Fig. 8. This general schematic shows the major nuclear reactor components. Uranium fuel elements produce fission reactions and neutrons. The neutrons help produce more fission reactions, leading to a sustained chain reaction. Operators move control rods in and out of the reactor to absorb neutrons, and thus control the chain reaction. This controls the power at which the reactor operates. The moderator improves reactor efficiency by slowing down the neutrons, thus increasing their likelihood of producing fission reactions. The reactor heats the water, which passes through the core, thus generating steam. The steam turns an electrical generator, thus producing electricity. Original figure courtesy of the European Nuclear Society; redrawn by Los Alamos National Laboratory to enhance clarity.

In a nuclear-thermal-rocket reactor, the temperature must be as high as possible to achieve optimum performance (see the article “The Basics of Nuclear Rocketry” on page 25). Thus, the core temperature for the Kiwi-A test was 2,683 Kelvin (K) or 4,370°F, whereas the core of pressurized- water reactors used for nuclear power plants is only around 600 K (620.6°F).

A major difference between a nuclear-thermal-rocket reactor and a power-plant reactor is the cooling systems. Nuclear rockets use hydrogen, whereas U.S. power plants use water. Hydrogen is the best propellant gas for a nuclear-thermal rocket. Nevertheless, working with hydrogen at these high temperatures presents many challenges.

It Comes Down to the Cores

All the Project Rover/NERVA reactors had solid cores. As detailed in “The Basics of Nuclear Rocketry” on page 25, researchers designed liquid- and gas-core reactors for nuclear-thermal-rocket propulsion—and even conducted small-scale experiments on components for these designs, but only solid-core reactors were built. Few materials, however, remain solid at the temperatures in the core of a nuclear-thermal-rocket reactor. Structurally, several metals and ceramics with high melting points (so-called “refractory” materials) may be used to build a core, but the way these materials interact with neutrons also plays a key role in their selection.

For example, the metal with the highest melting point—tungsten, at 3,695 K (6,191.6°F)—strongly absorbs neutrons, particularly “slow” ones, which have energies much less than one electronvolt. Project Rover cores were capable of operating with tungsten as a fuel matrix. However, the development of tungsten required technology development that proved to be beyond the capabilities of the program at the time. Consequently, Project Rover focused on graphite core reactors.

As a crystalline form of carbon, graphite behaves well at high temperatures because it has the highest melting point of any element. Graphite not only retains its strength at high temperatures but also actually becomes stronger. Graphite has long been used in various high-temperature industrial applications; therefore, scientists began considering its use in the design of Project Rover reactors.

The first fission reactor—and many reactors built after it—consisted of graphite bricks stacked in a “pile,” with rods of uranium dispersed throughout. Graphite was chosen to build piles mainly because of its good neutronics properties and because it was a weak neutron absorber and a good reflector and moderator of neutrons. However, graphite in a simple pile never encounters the extreme conditions as it would in the core of a nuclear-rocket reactor. Graphite’s response to these extreme conditions was unknown.

Hot Hydrogen Complicates Things

Scientists suspected early on that graphite could pose a serious problem when used in a nuclear-thermal-rocket reactor. The best propellant gas for this type of rocket is hydrogen. In the Project Rover engines, large amounts of hydrogen passed over the rocket nozzle and some reactor components before being forced through channels in fuel elements within the reactor core. This process heated the hydrogen, and the hot hydrogen quickly corroded the graphite in the reactor.

To protect these channels, scientists coated their inner surface with a thin niobium carbide (NbC) film. At first, scientists used a gaseous mixture of niobium chloride (NbCl5), hydrogen chloride (HCl), and hydrogen (H) to deposit NbC onto the channel’s inner surfaces, using a process called chemical vapor deposition (CVD). However, as core designs evolved, the lengths of the fuel elements increased. To meet these longer fuel-element designs, researchers vertically stacked shorter fuel-element sections to make longer fuel elements. Eventually, researchers perfected the technique for fabricating longer fuel elements.

The CVD process could not deeply penetrate the longer channels to coat evenly the inner surfaces of the fuel elements. Therefore, researchers developed a new coating method. Thin niobium tubes were inserted into the channels and heated in place under a hydrogen chloride gas, which converted the Nb to NbC. The outer surfaces of the fuel elements were also coated. Later, the program evolved to zirconium carbide (ZrC) coatings

Fueling the Reactor

The fuel elements in the cores of the Project Rover/NERVA reactors consisted of uranium-loaded graphite, made using a new method developed by Haskell Sheinberg, who is now a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellow. Unlike the proven high-temperature method for making graphite parts, the new method worked at room temperature, thus making it easier to fabricate fuel. Also, the new method produced stronger, denser graphite than the traditional method. Sheinberg’s method is still in use today.

The fuel elements in the Kiwi-A core consisted of flat plates molded and pressed at room temperature from a mixture of fine graphite powder called graphite flour, fine carbon powder, graphite flakes, a resin binder, and uranium oxide (UO2) particles. The fuel elements underwent baking from 318 K (113ºF) to 453 K (356ºF) over a period of 36 hours, followed by a heat treatment under vacuum at 1,073 K (1,472ºF). During this two-stage baking process, the resin decomposed into amorphous carbon and gas. The final baking of the elements was at 2,723 K (4,442°F) to crystallize the amorphous carbon into graphite. Graphite is stronger and a better heat conductor than amorphous carbon, which is brittle.

During this graphitization process, the UO2 particles are thermally converted to uranium carbide (UC2) particles. After graphitization, the fuel elements were machined to fine tolerances, as required for reactor operation. The flat-plate fuel elements in the Kiwi-A core were the only fuel elements used during Project Rover/NERVA that were not clad or coated to reduce hydrogen corrosion.

The fuel elements for all the Kiwi reactors after Kiwi-A (except the last one, Kiwi-B4E) were extruded into their near-final shapes and dimensions from a “green mix”—which consisted of graphite flour, fine carbon powder, resin binder (partially polymerized—or “set” furfuryl alcohol), UO2 particles, and a catalyst (maleic anhydride). After extrusion, the elements were baked to 523 K (482ºF) for approximately 56 hours to polymerize the resin. Then they were heated to as high as 1,123 K (1,562ºF) to remove gases produced during polymerization. Finally, the elements were graphitized around 3,000 K, and then machined to final specifications.

The extruded fuel elements had a diameter of approximately one inch, and were approximately four feet in length. In the early reactors, extruded fuel elements consisted of cylinders with a circular cross-section. Later, the cylinders had a hexagonal cross-section, so the assembled core resembled a honeycomb. The number of channels in each fuel element and the channel diameters also changed as reactor designs evolved. Figure 9 shows a cross-sectional schematic of a typical Project Rover/NERVA reactor.

Fig. 8. This general schematic shows the major nuclear reactor components. Uranium fuel elements produce fission reactions and neutrons. The neutrons help produce more fission reactions, leading to a sustained chain reaction. Operators move control rods in and out of the reactor to absorb neutrons, and thus control the chain reaction. This controls the power at which the reactor operates. The moderator improves reactor efficiency by slowing down the neutrons, thus increasing their likelihood of producing fission reactions. The reactor heats the water, which passes through the core, thus generating steam. The steam turns an electrical generator, thus producing electricity. Original figure courtesy of the European Nuclear Society; redrawn by Los Alamos National Laboratory to enhance clarity.

In early 1962, Project Rover scientists and engineers encountered a “back-reaction” problem with UO2 particles in the fuel elements that had been converted, during graphitization, to UC2 particles. Uranium carbide particles are extremely reactive and revert back to oxide in air, particularly humid air. During fuel-element processing, storage, and during reactor operation, the back reaction generated carbon dioxide (CO2) gas and degraded the fuel elements. Oxidation of the UC2particles during storage of the fuel elements made them swell as much as 4%, so that their final dimensions exceeded the fine tolerances required for the reactor.

To resolve this problem, scientists replaced UO2 particles with pyrolytic-graphite-coated UC2particles. Eventually, uranium carbide particles were developed that could withstand 2,873 K (4,550°F) for 30 minutes. The Kiwi-B4E, Phoebus-1, Phoebus-2, Pewee, and NRX-A reactors/engines all used fuel elements containing pyrolytic-graphite-coated UC2 particles. This type of fuel element became the “standard” fuel element. The NRX-A series of nuclear reactors were developed to demonstrate that Kiwi-B4 reactors could be adapted to withstand launch loads. During NRX-A6 and Pewee tests, the standard fuel elements operated for one hour at hydrogen exhaust temperatures between 2,400 K and 2,600 K (3,860.6–4,220.6°F).

Meanwhile, Los Alamos researchers continued to develop fuel elements capable of performing at ever-higher core temperatures. In 1972, Los Alamos tested two new fuel-element concepts in their Nuclear Furnace (NF-1) reactor, specifically designed to test such concepts. The NF-1 reactor was a heterogeneous, water-moderated, beryllium-reflected reactor for performing high-temperature nuclear tests. The first fuel element was a pure carbide (U,Zr)C. The second element was a “composite” fuel element.

Both the standard and composite fuel elements performed well when tested in the NF-1 reactor for 109 minutes at 2,450 K (3,950.6°F). Projections at that time indicated that the composite fuel elements would be good for 2 to 6 hours at 2,500–2,800 K (4,040.6–4,580.6°F). The researchers achieved similar endurance times at 3,000–3,200 K (4,940.6–5,300.6°F) for the carbide fuel elements, once an improved cross-section design reduced a cracking problem. For 10 hours of operation, fuel elements were limited to hydrogen exhaust temperatures of 2,200–2,300 K (3,500.6–3,680.6°F) for standard elements, nearly 2,400 K (3,860.6°F) for composite, and approximately 3,000 K (4,940.6°F) for pure-carbide fuel elements.

Mission: Cancelled

NASA’s plans for NERVA included a visit to Mars in 1979 and a permanent lunar base by 1981. NERVA rockets would be used for nuclear “tugs” designed to take payloads from low-Earth orbit to higher, larger orbits as a component of the later-named Space Transportation System. The NERVA rocket would also be used as a nuclear-powered upper-stage component for the Saturn rocket (a chemical-based rocket), which would enable the upgraded Saturn engine to launch much larger payloads (up to 340,000 pounds) to low-Earth orbit.

In 1973, Project Rover/NERVA was cancelled. Although the projects proved very successful, the space mission itself never took place. No nuclear-thermal rockets were ever used to send explorers on long-range space missions.

It was the Mars mission that led to NERVA’s termination. Members of Congress judged the manned mission to Mars was too expensive and that funding the project would continue to foster a costly “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union.

By the time NERVA was cancelled, the NERVA-2 would have met all the mission’s objectives. Two of these engines would have been fitted to a NERVA stage capable of powering a manned interplanetary spacecraft.

During its lifetime, Project Rover/NERVA achieved the following records:

  • 4,500 megawatts of thermal power
  • 3,311 K (5,500.4°F) exhaust temperature
  • 250,000 pounds of thrust
  • 850 seconds of specific impulse
  • 90 minutes of burn time
  • thrust-to-weight ratios of 3 to 4

Beyond proving the feasibility of nuclear space propulsion, Project Rover/NERVA enabled scientists to produce approximately 100 technical papers that covered the properties of graphite, graphite flour, and other forms of carbon. The program also produced several important spin-offs, including Sheinberg’s room-temperature graphite-fabrication process and methods for coating graphite with thin films of metal carbides.

Moreover, the technology for coating UC2 particles with pyrolytic graphite eventually led to the TRISO fuel beads now used in commercial high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors to generate electricity. However, the program’s most important spin-off—by any measure—was the heat pipe (see the ” Inspired Heat-Pipe Technology” article).

The heat pipe is currently the centerpiece of the Los Alamos research program known as Heatpipe Power System (HPS) reactors. As envisioned by heat pipe inventor Los Alamos physicist George Grover, HPS reactors use heat pipes to transfer heat from a reactor core to thermoelectric elements or heat engines.

In 2000, NASA created Project Prometheus to develop nuclear-powered systems for long-duration space missions. This project was NASA’s most serious consideration of nuclear power for space missions since the cancellation of Project Rover/NERVA in 1972. For the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO), a spacecraft designed to explore Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, NASA intended to use an HPS reactor. The JIMO (Fig. 10) design used a fission reactor to power a Brayton-cycle heat engine that ran an electrical generator. The electricity would then power scientific instruments and an ion-propulsion unit. In 2005, NASA canceled the Prometheus Project as a result of budget constraints.

Fig. 10. An artist's conception of JIMO as it nears Jupiter and its icy moons: Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Illustration courtesy of NASA.

Because scientists continue to look back and build upon the technical advances developed during Project Rover/NERVA, those enduring advances are likely to one day play a major role in humanity’s exploration of the solar system and beyond.

-Brian Fishbine, Robert Hanrahan, Steven Howe, Richard Malenfant, Carolynn Scherer, Haskell Sheinberg, and Octavio Ramos Jr. © Copyright 2010-11 LANS, LLC

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2011 in New Article, Photo, Science

 

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