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LANL director highlights lab’s ‘other’ work

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Mounted on the Mars rover Perseverance is the SuperCam – actually several instruments in one – that can appraise the chemistry, mineralogy and morphology of rocks on the Red Planet, not to mention that it’s equipped with a microphone to capture sound.

“We are the laser Cyclops eye of this rover,” Nina Lanza, who heads Los Alamos National Laboratory’s space and planetary exploration team, said Wednesday morning.

The SuperCam mounted on the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars as seen in a selfie taken April 6, 2021. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

And what’s a trip without taking and sharing some photos?

Images captured by the SuperCam since Perseverance landed in February were shown by Lanza.

“It looks like New Mexico, doesn’t it?” she asked, noting the difference is that the Mars landscape is devoid of vegetation, before talking about the small, robotic helicopter Ingenuity, which she said is scheduled for its first flight on Mars in eight or nine days.

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s hand in the Perseverance mission was on display as lab Director Thom Mason highlighted work LANL performs that doesn’t have to do with national security during a briefing conducted over Webex on Wednesday.

Mason touched on the lab’s work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer treatment, computer modeling and simulations.

In what was billed as a “community conversation,” Mason took just a few questions at the end of the hourlong program. He did not speak at length about the lab’s expanded mission to produce plutonium pits – the triggering device in nuclear weapons – and said nothing about ongoing cleanup of hazardous radioactive legacy waste at the lab.

While LANL’s primary focus is national security, Mason said, “that gives us a toolkit that we can apply to other problems.”

Research at LANL has led to the development of what Mason said some are calling a smart bomb against cancer. Led by LANL researcher Michael Fassbender, the new isotope treatment dispenses large amounts of radiation through a generator system while doing minimal damage to normal cells.

Mason said the lab has done extensive work in computer modeling and simulations, highlighting the work researcher Nitin Daphalapurkar and his team do in modeling brain trauma that can be used to help predict life-threatening brain injuries.

He also talked about the lab’s work to tap into the power of sunlight more efficiently with perovskite solar panels, which he described as an option for the next generation of solar energy.

Mason focused part of the discussion on the lab’s COVID-19 response. He said $18 million in CARES Act funding was invested into the effort. The COVID-19 modeling developed at LANL is being used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and lab scientists have also worked closely with the New Mexico Department of Health and health officials in other states.

“There are a lot of models out there – that’s actually a good thing because you can test one against the other – but I think ours has been quite successful in providing a window into how things might evolve over the next four to six weeks and understand what that means for things like the demand for ventilators or intensive care unit hospital beds to stay ahead as much as possible,” he said.

Mason said LANL is also leading the testing team for the Department of Energy’s National Virtual Biotechnology Lab.

The lab director also spoke about LANL’s return to Santa Fe after a 58-year absence.

LANL recently announced it was leasing office space in three Santa Fe buildings that together will accommodate more than 600 lab employees.

“We are viewing this as a permanent presence,” he said, adding that the buildings in Santa Fe will function as a “telework hub” and “home base” for many of the lab employees who have been working from home for the past year.


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