Published on 15-Jun-2024

How Neutron Radiography could have saved a 2 billion Dollar Satellite

How Neutron Radiography could have saved a 2 billion Dollar Satellite

Table of Content

Some Non-destructive testing (NDT) methods can be used to assess materials or test subjects without dismantling them. Techniques like ultrasonic testing (UT), radiographic inspection (RT), and magnetic particle inspection (MPT) are commonly employed across various industries to ensure the integrity of critical components. 

However, like in the AEHF-1 incident, sometimes unsuspecting obstructions (like a mere piece of cloth) can prove to be near-catastrophic. For incidents like these, Neutron Radiography, a form of NDT known as N-ray inspection, can be a saviour for the aerospace industry, particularly in satellite inspection. 

Unlike traditional methods, Neutron Radiography excels at detecting low-density materials that might otherwise be overlooked, ensuring comprehensive assessment, and preventing costly delays. This article explores how N-ray inspection could have averted the 14-month recovery period of AEHF-1, demonstrating its potential to safeguard the future of aerospace projects.

What is Neutron Radiography and How Does it Work?

Schematic of Neutron Radiography

Neutron radiography, also known as neutron imaging, is defined as an NDT method that utilises neutrons to penetrate materials and produce detailed images of their internal structures. 

It detects low-density materials and differentiates between materials of similar density that other imaging techniques might miss.

Apparatus Used in Neutron Imaging

  • Neutron Source: Typically, a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator.
  • Collimator: Directs the neutron beam towards the test object.
  • Test Object: The item being inspected.
  • Detector: Captures the neutron image, often using film, scintillators, or digital detectors.

Physics Principles Involved in Neutron Radiography

  • Neutron Penetration: Neutrons penetrate materials differently than X-rays, being more sensitive to low atomic number elements.
  • Interaction with Matter: Neutrons interact with nuclei rather than electron clouds, allowing them to distinguish between elements like hydrogen, lithium, and boron.
  • Absorption and Scattering: Neutrons are absorbed and scattered by materials, and the variations in these interactions form the basis of the imaging process.

Working of the N-Ray Inspection Process

  • Neutron Source Generation: Neutrons are generated using a nuclear reactor or particle accelerator.
  • Beam Collimation: A collimator directs the neutrons into a fine, collimated beam.
  • Object Placement: The test object is placed in the path of the neutron beam.
  • Neutron Interaction: As neutrons pass through the object, they interact with its internal structures, being absorbed, or scattered to varying degrees.
  • Image Detection: The neutrons that pass through the object are captured by a detector, which records the intensity variations to create an image.
  • Image Analysis: The resulting image is analysed to identify internal features, defects, or anomalies within the object.

Applications of Neutron Radiography 

  • Aerospace Industry: Used for inspecting components for defects and ensuring aerospace quality control.
  • Satellite Inspection: Vital for detecting contaminants or defects in satellite components.
  • Non-Destructive Evaluation: Allows for detailed internal examination of materials without causing damage.
  • Neutron-Based Testing: Effective in identifying light elements within a matrix of heavier elements, making it useful in various industrial and research applications.

Neutron radiography is a powerful non-destructive testing method that offers unique advantages over other imaging techniques, particularly its ability to detect low-density materials and differentiate between similar-density substances. This makes it invaluable in the industries requiring precise internal inspections.

High Stakes of Aerospace and Spacecraft Manufacturing

Depiction of a NASA satellite

The aerospace industry operates under extremely cut-throat precision, where even the slightest flaw can lead to an avalanche of failures. 

The consequences of such failures can be severe, ranging from substantial financial losses to mission delays and, tragically, the loss of human lives.

The Necessity of Precision

  • Cutthroat Precision: Every component in the aerospace industry must adhere to exact specifications. Even micrometre-level deviations can compromise the safety and outcome of a mission.
  • Harsh Consequences: Failures in this field can have severe repercussions, including mission failure, substantial financial costs, and the loss of life.

High Stake Consequences of Past Failures

Apollo 1 (1967):

  • A cabin fire during a pre-launch test resulted in the deaths of three astronauts.
  • Infrared thermography could have identified faulty wiring and flammable materials, preventing the fire.

Challenger Space Shuttle (1986):

  • An O-ring failure in a solid rocket booster led to the shuttle's disintegration, causing the deaths of seven astronauts.
  • Ultrasonic testing could have detected the O-ring vulnerabilities under varying temperature conditions.

Columbia Space Shuttle (2003):

The Columbia Space Mission Memorial

  • Foam insulation struck the left wing during launch, leading to structural failure upon re-entry and the deaths of seven astronauts.
  • X-ray and Neutron imaging could have detected hidden cracks or weaknesses in the foam insulation and wing structure.

Mars Climate Orbiter (1999):

  • Miscommunication of measurement units between teams caused the orbiter to disintegrate upon entering Mars' atmosphere.
  • Systems and software validation through meticulous Non-Destructive Evaluation (NDE) processes could’ve helped prevent this incident.

Importance of Precision Imaging Systems

Neutron Imaging

  • Enhanced Detection Capabilities: Advanced imaging systems, such as Neutron radiography, provide detailed insights into the internal structure of components. This capability is essential for detecting low-density materials and potential obstructions that other methods might miss, crucial for aerospace quality control and satellite inspection.
  • Expedited Progress: Precision imaging systems expedite the development and manufacturing process by ensuring the integrity and reliability of every component. This reduces the likelihood of costly delays and enhances overall mission success rates.
  • Industry Impact: Sophisticated Non-Destructive Testing methods in the aerospace sector foster innovation and accelerate technological advancements.

Advanced NDT techniques, especially Neutron radiography applications help identify potential issues before they escalate into major problems.

The AEHF-1 Incident

The AEHF-1 (Advanced Extremely High Frequency) project was part of a series of military communication satellites designed to provide secure and jam-resistant communications for the United States Armed Forces. This satellite was critical for ensuring global communications capabilities, particularly in hostile environments.

What Went Wrong?

The AEHF-1 satellite faced significant issues shortly after its launch in August 2010. A propulsion system anomaly occurred, preventing the satellite from reaching its intended orbit. 

This problem led to a 14-month delay in the satellite becoming fully operational. Fortunately, there were no casualties, but the incident resulted in substantial financial and operational setbacks.

Root Cause - The Tiny Flaw

  • The issue was traced back to a small piece of cloth obstructing a fuel line, which had gone undetected during pre-launch inspections.
  • Various Non-Destructive Testing methods were used during the satellite’s assembly and pre-launch phases, including visual inspections, X-ray radiography, and ultrasonic testing.
  • These methods failed to detect the cloth obstruction, likely because it was a low-density material that was difficult to identify using traditional inspection techniques.

A visualisation of the AEHF-6

Neutron Radiography 

Neutron radiography, a powerful Non-Destructive Testing method, could have been crucial in this scenario. 

Its features include:

  • Neutron imaging excels at detecting low-density materials, such as the piece of cloth that obstructed the fuel line. Neutrons easily identify organic materials within a complex assembly as they interact strongly with lighter elements like hydrogen. 
  • This technique allows for detailed internal inspections without dismantling the satellite components, ensuring the structural integrity remains intact.
  • Neutron-based testing is highly effective for aerospace quality control, providing high-resolution images of the internal components and detecting even minor flaws that other methods might miss.
  • Neutron radiography can reveal hidden defects, contaminations, and foreign materials within a satellite’s intricate systems, ensuring thorough satellite inspection and reducing the risk of mission-critical failures.
  • Utilising neutron radiography would have allowed the detection of the cloth obstruction during the manufacturing or pre-launch phase, potentially saving the AEHF-1 project from the lengthy recovery period and associated costs.

Neutron Radiography

The AEHF-1 incident highlights the critical need for advanced Non-Destructive Testing methods in the aerospace industry. Neutron radiography, with its superior imaging capabilities and ability to detect low-density materials, represents an invaluable tool for ensuring the reliability and success of satellite missions. 

Incorporating neutron-based testing into standard aerospace quality control protocols could prevent similar issues in future projects, safeguarding both investments and mission timelines.

Traditional NDT Methods 

Traditional NDT Methods are immensely useful to industries, but come with their own set of limitations, which include:

Visual Inspection:

  • This technique involves inspecting components visually for defects.
  • It can only detect surface-level defects and requires line-of-sight access. Ineffective for internal flaws or obstructions.

Military Aviation Vehicle

X-ray Radiography:

  • This technique uses X-rays to create images of the internal structure of components.
  • X-ray Radiography struggles to detect low-density materials and distinguish between materials of similar density. 
  • Limited penetration depth for high-density materials, makes it less effective for complex or thick components.

Ultrasonic Testing:

  • This technique employs high-frequency sound waves to detect flaws within materials.
  • It requires a coupling medium and direct contact with the component.
  • Difficulty in detecting flaws in complex geometries and low-density materials. Interpretation of results can be challenging and operator-dependent.

Magnetic Particle Inspection:

  • MPT involves applying magnetic fields and iron particles to detect surface and near-surface defects in ferromagnetic materials.
  • This is only applicable to ferromagnetic materials and primarily surface-level detection. Ineffective for non-ferromagnetic materials and internal flaws.

Eddy Current Testing:

  • ECT uses electromagnetic induction to detect surface and sub-surface defects.
  • It is limited to conductive materials and shallow depth detection. It can be affected by the geometry and thickness of the material.

Advantages of Neutron Radiography

Neutron Imaging of Fuel Injectors

Neutron radiography, has many benefits, especially in comparison to the traditional NDT methods:

Detecting Low-Density Materials:

  • Traditional methods like X-ray radiography and ultrasonic testing often fail to detect low-density materials, such as the cloth obstruction in the AEHF-1 incident.
  • Neutron imaging is highly sensitive to low-density materials, making it particularly effective for detecting such obstructions.

Material Differentiation:

  • Traditional NDT methods struggle to differentiate between materials of similar density, potentially missing critical defects or contaminants.
  • Neutron-based testing can easily distinguish between materials with different neutron absorption characteristics, providing clearer and more detailed internal images.

Penetration Depth:

  • Methods like X-ray radiography have limited penetration depth, especially for high-density materials, reducing their effectiveness for inspecting thick or complex structures.
  • Neutrons have deeper penetration capabilities for high-density materials, allowing for thorough inspection of complex aerospace components.

Applicability to Diverse Materials:

  • Techniques such as magnetic particle inspection and eddy current testing are limited to specific types of materials (ferromagnetic and conductive, respectively).
  • Neutron imaging is versatile and can be applied to many materials, enhancing its utility across various aerospace applications.

Surface vs. Internal Flaws:

  • Many traditional NDT methods are more effective at detecting surface or near-surface flaws but struggle with internal defects.
  • Neutron imaging excels at detecting internal defects, making it an invaluable tool for comprehensive satellite inspection and aerospace quality control.

Neutron-based testing provides superior imaging capabilities, ensuring more reliable and thorough non-destructive evaluation, which is crucial for maintaining high standards in the aerospace industry.

Neutron Radiography and The Future

With the increasing demand for satellite inspection and aerospace quality control, advanced techniques such as neutron imaging offer unparalleled capabilities for non-destructive evaluation. 

Neutron-based testing, with its ability to detect low-density materials, differentiate between similar densities, and penetrate complex structures, should become the new norm in ensuring the integrity and safety of aerospace components. 

Incorporating neutron radiography into standard non-destructive testing protocols will lead to more efficient and successful aerospace projects.

Key Takeaways

  • Neutron radiography offers unparalleled capabilities in detecting low-density materials and differentiating between similar densities compared to traditional NDT methods like X-ray radiography and ultrasonic testing.
  • Advanced techniques such as neutron imaging are crucial for ensuring the integrity and safety of aerospace components, especially in satellite inspection and aerospace quality control.
  • Incorporating neutron radiography into standard NDT protocols will lead to more efficient and successful aerospace projects, safeguarding investments and mission timelines.


1. What is neutron radiography and how does it work? 

A: Neutron radiography is a non-destructive testing method that uses neutrons to create detailed internal structure images. Neutrons penetrate materials differently than X-rays, detecting low-density materials and distinguishing between similar-density substances.

2. How could neutron radiography have prevented the satellite’s failure?

A: Neutron radiography could have detected the obstructing cloth, which traditional methods missed due to its low-density nature. Early detection during manufacturing or pre-launch could have averted the satellite failure, saving time and costs.

3. What are the advantages of neutron radiography in satellite inspection? 

A: Neutron radiography detects low-density materials, differentiating between materials, and penetrating complex structures. Its versatility and capability to provide clear internal images make it invaluable for thorough satellite inspection.


  • NMI3
  • NASA

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