Life in the universe can be difficult for inhabited planets, especially when you’re directly in the path of a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) shot out from your own life-sustaining star.
Even without a massive network of interconnecting power lines sweeping across the planet, these solar storms can wreak havoc; but add in that same network of power lines and life becomes very tricky.
Theorists have predicted nationwide blackouts with year long delays if such a storm were to hit and be strong enough to blow up transformers. One such storm hit on March 13 of 1989 and damaged transformers in Quebec, New Jersey and Great Britain, and is reported to have caused more than 200 power anomalies across the United States.
Naturally, there is concern.
This concern has led NASA scientists to develop a new project called “Solar Shield,” which is aimed at protecting transformers in the 30 minutes before the solar storm hits.
“Solar Shield is a new and experimental forecasting system for the North American power grid,” explains project leader Antti Pulkkinen, a Catholic University of America research associate working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We believe we can zero in on specific transformers and predict which of them are going to be hit hardest by a space weather event.”
How it Works
Solar Shield doesn’t have any of the cool futuristic components that its name suggests it does, but what it does have is just as impressive. “Solar Shield springs into action when we see a coronal mass ejection billowing away from the sun,” explains Pulkkinen. “Images from SOHO and NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft show us the cloud from as many as three points of view, allowing us to make a 3D model of the CME, and predict when it will arrive.”
A CME takes somewhere between 24 and 48 hours to travel the distance between its ejection point on the Sun and our planet, which gives us plenty of time to model the cloud. The last 30 minutes before impact are the most important, however. The cloud will sweep past ACE – a spacecraft stationed 1.5 kilometres upstream from Earth – and will take measurements of the CME’s speed, density, and magnetic field, and immediately transmit that data to the Solar Shield team working at Goddard’s Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC).
“We quickly feed the data into CCMC computers,” says Pulkkinen. “Our models predict fields and currents in Earth’s upper atmosphere and propagate these currents down to the ground.”
The team are then able to make predictions based on the information which has been garnered and warn utility companies which transformers need to be taken out of the grid – temporarily – to prevent a lasting blackout.
While Solar Shield has yet to be tested under actual geomagnetic storms and is therefore extremely experimental, the scientists behind the design are hopeful.
“We’d like more power companies to join our research effort,” he adds. “The more data we can collect from the field, the faster we can test and improve Solar Shield.”