NASA shield may protect Earth's power from the Sun

Sunstorm forecaster could prevent blackouts like Quebec 1989

NASA is working on a project designed to forecast and help protect against huge solar storms that emit bursts of radiation capable of sending electrical shocks through the ground, overload circuits in long-distance, high-voltage electrical power networks and, in some cases, melt the windings around heavy duty transformers on the giant towers.  

About once a century a coronal mass ejection (CME) -- a billion of sun-stuff thrown out like flaming, radioactive storm clouds -- turns the twilight sky with blood-red auroras, makes compass needles spin and the ground underfoot becomes the biggest shockmat in history.

The worst recorded storm actually sounds like fun (from this distance):

"The Carrington Event of 1859 actually shocked telegraph operators and set some of their offices on fire," according to NASA's press release.

The culprit is Geomagnetically Induced Current (GIC) -- electricity generated by the impact of Solar wind across the upper levels of the Earth's atmosphere.

In 1989 a geomagnetic storm brought down the power network covering the entire province of Quebec and damaged transformers in New Jersey and Great Britain.

Using satellite-basedobservatories that monitor CMEs as they happen and send data and images to the ground, computers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Md. predict the intensity of the impact on the upper atmosphere, then the location and intensity of electrical disturbances on the ground.

Eventually, NASA engineers hope to predict which transformers from which utilities would be hardest hit, and send a warning to protect them.

NASA is looking for more funding from the utility industry, whose EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute) is already helping, to complete Solar Shield, hopefully before 2013, the next expected peak of Solar storm activity.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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