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Gamma Rays: small but mighty

Like fingerprints to a detective, gamma rays provide clues for NNSA’s nonproliferation mission.   

Gamma rays are the highest energy type of electromagnetic radiation and reveal information about the sources that created them.

Gamma ray signatures can be used to detect the difference between radioactive materials that pose a security risk and those that do not.

Gamma rays can be detected by radiation monitoring devices. NNSA deploys radiation portal monitors and other types of devices to find material that could be used in a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb.

Working with the Department of Homeland Security, NNSA has also trained police units in major U.S. cities to use radiation detection devices to locate a potential dirty bomb or other radioactive source.

Gamma rays can also be produced in man-made high-energy sources. In supporting NNSA’s nuclear deterrence mission, the High Energy Radiation Megavolt Electron Source (HERMES) at Sandia National Laboratories produces energetic beams and copious amounts of gamma rays. Scientists use HERMES and other tools to test how weapons components and electronics survive radiation, helping to ensure that the nuclear stockpile is safe, secure, and effective without nuclear explosive testing.

The gamma ray detection capabilities created by NNSA’s programs and laboratories have applications outside of national security, too. In the medical field, gamma rays are used in award-winning cancer screening devices and in surgical procedures to guide removal of tumors.

NNSA researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have used gamma rays to help law enforcement agencies determine rightful ownership or the origin of rare and valuable items, ranging from dinosaur bones to software. By printing microscopic, invisible amounts of radioisotopes onto an item, the unique digital fingerprint can be read and verified with gamma-ray spectroscopy.

Gamma rays are produced by the hottest and most energetic objects in the universe, like neutron stars, supernova explosions, and areas around black holes. Gamma-ray astronomy presents unique opportunities to explore the universe, search for new physics, test theories, and perform experiments that are not possible in Earth-bound laboratories.

Learn more about the history and discovery of gamma radiation from this National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) timeline.

Research at NNSA spans the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Learn about the electromagnetic spectrum through the science and technology used within the Nuclear Security Enterprise, starting with X-rays

NASA's Swift satellite recorded the gamma-ray blast caused by a black hole being born 12.8 billion light years away. This object is among the most distant objects ever detected.