Solar “power” is not always beneficial for the environment and our technology. A new challenge has landed in NASA scientists’ courtyard: preventing blackouts that may be caused by the next solar storm. The answer to this challenge is embodied in a new high-tech solution, a forecasting system under development, called “Solar Shield.”
The role of the technology is to enable NASA to locate the transformers most likely of being affected by the solar storm, providing the operators with early warning and lead time to isolate the trouble spot.
A solar storm or geomagnetic storm is caused by a solar wind (stream of charged particles thrown from the upper atmosphere of the Sun) shock wave and/or cloud of magnetic field which strikes the Earth’s magnetic field.
This induces changes in the electric currents throughout the Earth’s atmosphere and crust, disrupting communication systems and/or overloading the circuits in the electric power grids. Such a phenomenon occurred in 1989 and 2003, causing many power anomalies and transformer damages in Canada, U.S. and U.K. among other countries.
The nowadays power grids in the U.S., are well developed and the structure designs are well-thought-out compared to 50 years ago. Nevertheless, a solar storm with the magnitude comparable to the Carrington Event in 1859 could have disastrous consequences mainly due to transformers damage.
Therefore, NASA has focused its efforts on developing a system capable of giving advanced warning for the engineers to disconnect the vulnerable transformers that are most likely to go off. This means temporary blackouts and rapidly restarting the transformers at minimal cost, by contrast with arduous efforts needed to repair the damaged transformers at an obviously higher cost.
The high tech Solar Shield concept is based on putting together images of massive bursts of solar wind taken by NASA’s space vehicle and subsequently constructing a 3D model. As the cloud generated in the burst gets closer to Earth, scientists will be able to estimate the impact and issue an early alert.
Regardless the univocal concept, the system is merely in its experimental stages. Although NASA has recruited a several companies to install monitors, still needs to gather a lot of data for model validation. A considerable amount of information will be available when the next big solar storm outbursts in 2013.