Big Bangs

by wjw on October 22, 2007

At present my life seems to be interesting, but only when it’s October. This was my fourth weekend in a row doing something different and engaging.

This last weekend was the homecoming celebration for the New Mexico Instute of Mining and Technology, where Kathy works. This celebration is known as “Forty-Niners,” a name dating from the days when NMT produced more mining engineers than astrophysicists.

On Friday afternoon, Kathy and I stowed away aboard a bus full of alumni being taken on a tour of EMRTC (pronounced “Emmertech”), the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center. (“Energetic materials,” by the way, is techspeak for “things that blow other things up good.”)

Along the way we passed IRIS/PASCAL, where they do geology and earthquake research. A number of solar-powered seismographs were set out behind their building for testing— our friend Noel regularly travels to places like Tibet to plant them on remote tectonic boundaries.

They get a good test in Socorro, which sits on an active earthquake fault as well as being adjacent to EMRTC, where explosions are regularly set off.

EMRTC is splayed out through the valleys, plateaus, and arroyos of M Mountain, the mountain that looms over New Mexico Tech to the west. (As it encloses an entire mountain, NMT is not surprisingly the world’s largest university campus.)

EMRTC is doing very well, thriving on Homeland Security grants. They also do consulting for mining firms and others who use explosive, and produce explosive art— art made with metal sandwiched between high explosive and a mold.

Driving up the unpaved road that led to our demonstration site, we could look out and see not only the usual spectacular Southwestern scenery, bluffs and stone towers striped with red, white, and brown like exotic layer cakes, but a whole feast of military hardware. Tanks and self-propelled artillery were parked here and there along the way, presumably to be used as targets. A couple were Eastern Bloc. Also visible were a rather astounding number of aircraft fuselages (“Hey! That’s an F-100!”), lying alongside the road with their wings removed. I’m not sure what these are used for, if anything. (I wonder if the National Guard gets a tax deduction for donating old equipment.)

We climbed high into the mountain to a large bunker, perhaps eighty feet long. Stretched along the top of this was an 80-foot-long mirror, so that tests could be viewed from the bunker in safety.

Our tests would not require the bunker. We loitered outside, drank from the chilled water bottles that NMT had kindly provided, and waited for things to happen.

We saw two demonstrations. The first was a large tank of jet fuel set alight: it burned so brightly that you couldn’t look at it.

The second demonstration was the detonation of a fifty-pound bag of ANFO, nitrate fertilizer soaked with diesel fuel, the favorite toy of domestic terrorists. The explosive was set on a pad a mile or more away, and set off remotely.

The explosion occurred in silence, with a background of birdsong. Suddenly there was just an explosion there, the whole dirt pad erupting. It happened a lot faster than in the movies, where explosions are (I guess) all slow-mo, so that you can be all the more impressed.

The sound hit us about three seconds later (I counted). It was a sharp WHAM, and powerful enough that I felt the sound wave pass through my viscera.

There was no ground wave, though I was prepared for one. Possibly the geology in the valley between us and the explosion was not favorable.

(Check this out to see a larger ANFO explosion.)

Fifty pounds of ANFO was one of the smaller explosions they do at EMRTC. They regularly set off conventional explosions up to 10 kilotons, over half the size of the Hiroshima bomb. They often explode car bombs in order to train security personnel, and test new weapons, structures, and armor.

Once the ANFO went off, the demo was over. We had about two minutes of demonstration to an hour or so of driving, but the lovely scenery and the military neep kept it interesting, not to mention overhearing the reminiscences of the alumni, many of whom had blown stuff up in their own time.

This was followed by a more spectacular outing, but I’ll have to leave you in what I’ll assume to be horrific suspense, and tell it another time.

Brian Borchers October 23, 2007 at 4:26 am

The speed of sound is roughly 1,000 feet per second, so if it really was a 3 second delay, then you were more like 1/2 of a mile away from the blast.

I have to agree- those guys can make some very loud noises…

Oz October 23, 2007 at 10:47 am

Quote “I wonder if the National Guard gets a tax deduction for donating old equipment.”End quote.

To answer this question, one would first have to assume that a National Guard actually pays taxes.


dubjay October 23, 2007 at 8:26 pm

J-O-K-E, Oz. J-O-K-E.

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