Academics and Research / News

Researchers have a blast at DU’s ballistics range

At the University of Denver, the Applied Research & Technology Institute specializes in ballistics and explosives analytics. Working for such companies as ITT AES, Corvid Technologies and the U.S. Air Force, the group tests a variety of materials for strength and impact resistance.

The University of Denver blows up, shoots at and blasts holes in more stuff before noon than most universities do all day.

Measuring and documenting havoc wreaked by .50-caliber bullets, cannon-blasts of ball bearings and dozens of explosive concoctions, researchers at DU’s Applied Research and Technology Institute toil at a remote ballistics lab tucked between hillsides on the rolling prairie east of Aurora, Colo.

“A lot of what we do, we do for small businesses,” says Steven Ford, who manages the ballistics lab. “They’re working on a material and need to test some properties. They can come to us and get extremely accurate measurements and work done to their specifications. One reason people come to us is that they have some proprietary stuff, and that proprietary stuff stays proprietary.”

So a company working on a new type of armor for a vehicle might send stacks of plates made of composite materials. Ford and others at the facility can blast bullets as thick as a man’s thumb at the plates and record detailed data, including X-rays and photos taken by an imaging tool that records at a rate of up to 100,000 frames per second. That data goes back to the manufacturer, and the DU lab never needs to know what the samples were made from.

Need to know what a pea-sized pellet will do to material that could one day form the skin of NASA’s next-generation space vehicle? The facility has a huge “gun” that can propel that pellet up to 7,000 feet per second to simulate speeding space debris.

Research associate Justin Wiley shows off silver-colored plates with holes blown through them by the device. In the lab, accurate test results are vital. In space, those same holes could kill a crew of astronauts.

Clients have included the computational physicists at Corvid Technologies; the U.S. Missile Defense Agency; emissions control researchers at Neumann Systems Group; and the Littleton division of ARA, a company that has done research for the Army on weapons effectiveness and target vulnerabilities.

“Typically, what we do is create an exact simulation of something to meet what the clients might expect in the field,” Ford says.

That can include customizing a .50-caliber shell so that on impact it replicates the bullet’s speed if fired from the ground at an aircraft, or blasting ball bearings from a 57 mm “cannon” of sorts to simulate vehicle armor hit by a roadside bomb. Researchers have fired tungsten rods at tank armor and tested “bunker busting” ordinance. Wiley says the team has even taken shots at containers packed with tomato cans to test dispersion of what could be a deadly poison or biological agents packed into a missile.

“The capabilities they have out here are really useful for a company like ours,” says Fred Sandstrom, an ARA scientist. “It’s better turnaround time, and it’s cost effective.”

Capping a day of demonstrations and exhibits on the prairie, research engineer Donald New showed off two sticks of explosives; one dynamite, the other a concoction similar to the materials used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Without a blasting cap, the materials are safe enough to handle. But once New attached the detonators and flipped the switch, the resulting blasts shook the ground and sent a shock wave guests could feel 200 yards away.

Not many people would be eager to have such a facility next door. Fortunately, the nearest neighbors to DU’s range are barely visible in the distance.

ARA researcher Scott Hardesty says the company used to have access to its own range, but suburban sprawl encroached on the facility and has made ranges such as DU’s increasingly rare.

“There just aren’t many places like this left,” he says. “This is one of the few sites on the Front Range. It’s very useful.”

Watch a video of a demonstration blast.

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