There are many things threatening the US National Grid at the moment – rolling blackouts, lack of funding and problems integrating renewable energy – but NASA is working on their defense against another threat: solar storms. NASA’s scheme, dubbed the Solar Shield, will aim to prevent blackouts caused by solar storms through a forecasting system that would enable the Space Agency to pinpoint certain high-risk transformers. The Solar Shield would then warn grid operators, giving them enough time to isolate the problem and prevent widespread damage.

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Solar storms have become a major concern for utility providers and the national military in recent years. Although major solar storms only occur every 100 years or so, when a storm cloud from the sun (or coronal eruption) makes the Earth’s magnetic field shake,  it sends electrical currents all over the planet, disturbing systems on the ground and in the air. These events even have the potential to melt transformer parts.

The last major solar storm was the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859, disrupting the telegraph services. More recently, mild storms in 1989 and 2003 caused ‘power fluctuations’ in transformers in the US, Canada, Great Britain and other countries. Today, if a solar storm the size of the Carrington Event was to occur, it would cause major damage to the National Grid as well as affected electronic systems all over the world. As a result, NASA scientists believe an early warning system would give utility companies time to disconnect major transformers in time, preventing damage and even fire. A lack of an effective system could result in blackouts and very expensive repairs.

In addition to acting as an ‘early warning system’, the Solar Shield would take images of any coronal eruptions via NASA spacecraft and satellites, and would order and assess the size and potential impact. While the Solar Shield is still in the experimental stages, NASA has recruited a number of utility companies to install monitors at their transformers. This stage should give the agency time to devise a suitable defense as the next major solar storm event is predicted for 2013.


via Clean Technica

Lead Image © NASA Goddard