A xenon discharge tube. Scientists will be sampling for xenon in the air in testing stations around North Korea, looking for chemical clues about the fuel the North Koreans used.
Credit: Alchemist-hp on Wikimedia Commons
After testing the ground, scientists will be sniffing the air to learn more about the nuclear bomb North Korean officials detonated today (Jan. 12).
An earthquake, which isn't likely to occur naturally in North Korea, was the first indication that the secretive nation had conducted an underground bomb test. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) detected a 5.1-magnitude earthquake in the same region where North Korea had conducted previous nuclear tests around 9 a.m. local time today. News agencies in the U.S. and South Korea reported on the unusual activity, with North Korea's state-run news agency confirming a nuclear test a few hours later, according to a timeline put together by the blog North Korea Tech.
Now, however, scientists are looking for the "smoking gun": radiation in the air, Lassina Zerbo, who oversees the CTBTO's data center, told Nature News. Air measurements could help researchers determine whether the bomb used plutonium or uranium as fuel. If this third bomb is uranium-based, it would mean the country has a source of uranium that is totally unknown to outsiders, Graham Allison, Jr., a Harvard University analyst, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
Experts think North Korea's previous two underground nuclear bomb tests used plutonium-based weapons. American officials believe North Korea has enough plutonium for six to 10 nuclear bombs, Allison wrote.
It's widely believed North Korea is attempting to build an intercontinental ballistic missile, Reuters reported. The United States White House and the United Nations have condemned today's test, as well as a December satellite project they say is a stepping stone toward a long-range missile.
Nature News describes how the CTBTO has testing stations in Japan, China and Mongolia. Station scientists will look for xenon, a gas that is able to slip through rocks and dirt North Korean scientists may have used to seal an underground testing chamber. Ill luck, however, may mean that the scientists don't find anything.
In addition, the researchers will have just a few days to capture chemical information from the air, Nature News reported. Xenon-133m, the form of xenon scientists need to determine whether North Korea's bomb was plutonium- or uranium-based, has a half-life of 2.2 days.