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Solar Shield could prevent lengthy power blackouts and transformer damage during geomagnetic storms

NASA has created a new project called "Solar Shield" in an effort to prevent damage to key transformers in the case of a severe solar storm.

In 1859, a severe solar storm called the Carrington Event occurred throughout September 1 and 2. It is the most powerful solar storm recorded in history. Offices caught on fire and telegraph operators were actually shocked and saw sparks from the storm. Sunspots and solar flares were seen on the sun from August 28 through September 2, and aurorae seen over the Rocky Mountains were so bright that gold miners awoke early because they thought it was daylight. Just before noon on September 1, Richard Carrington, a British astronomer, saw the largest flare in the sky. This large flare caused a coronal mass ejection, which is a billion-ton solar storm cloud, which took 18 hours to travel toward Earth. 

A report composed in 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences noted that a solar storm as severe as the Carrington Event could cause mass power blackouts and "permanent damage" to main transformers if it were to occur today. In fact, in 1989, Quebec experienced a geomagnetic storm much less powerful than the Carrington Event, and even still, power was knocked out for over nine hours and transformers were damaged in Quebec, Great Britain and New Jersey. In 2003, yet another geomagnetic storm milder than the Carrington Event occurred, causing transformer damage in South Africa and blackouts in southern Sweden.

Unfortunately, a report composed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 warns that modern power systems, though several utilities have taken the necessary steps to strengthen and secure their power grids, have a "significantly enhanced vulnerability and exposure to effects of a severe geomagnetic storm."

To protect power systems in the event that another powerful solar storm should occur, NASA has developed a project called "Solar Shield," which has the potential to shelter high-voltage power lines that crisscross over North America. Considering the length of these power lines has "increased nearly 10 fold" since the beginning of the Space Age, it is critical to consider the affect a solar storm could have on power systems in the United States and throughout the world.  

"Solar Shield is a new and experimental forecasting system for the North American power grid," said Antti Pulkkinen, project leader and Catholic University of America research associate currently working with 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 the hardest by a space weather event."

Geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) are the main problems when it comes to power grids during geomagnetic storms. When a CME approaches Earth's magnetic field, it causes the field to shake. This quiver causes currents from the ground to Earth's upper atmosphere, and powerful GICs can trip breakers, overload circuits and melt the windings of transformers. Transformer damage leads to large-scale blackouts, and these transformers cannot be repaired in the field. They must be replaced, which is both expensive and time consuming. 

"Solar Shield springs into action when we see a coronal mass ejection (CME) billowing away from the sun," said 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."

The CME typically takes 24 to 48 hours to cross the Sun-Earth divide. During this time, NASA researchers at the Goddard Community Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC) are gathering physics-based computer programs to model the CME. Thirty minutes before impact, ACE, a spacecraft stationed 1.5 million km "upstream from Earth," uses its sensors to make in situ measurement's of the CME's magnetic field, density and speed, then sends the data to the Solar Shield team on Earth. The data is fed into CCMC computers where models predict currents and fields in Earth's upper atmosphere and transmit this information to the ground. The Solar Shield team is then prepared to send alerts to utilities with details about the GICs. 

"We'd like more power companies to join our research effort," said Pulkkinen. "The more data we can collect from the field, the faster we can test and improve Solar Shield."

Solar Shield has never been tested during a geomagnetic storm, but a small number of utilities have already installed monitors at main locations in the power grid so that the team can check their predictions. Pulkkinen and his team expect the next solar maximum around 2013. 

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So what...
By tdktank59 on 10/29/2010 7:49:50 PM , Rating: 2
So what does this mean to adding reliability?

So we can figure out where they are going to hit us and when.
But what does this mean to protecting the transformers in question?

RE: So what...
By mmatis on 10/29/2010 8:02:13 PM , Rating: 2
If the utilities have the ability to remotely trip the breakers around those transformers, that should significantly reduce the damage and allow them to be brought back on line fairly quickly. Definitely a power outage for the areas they service, but those customers would have had a MUCH LONGER outage without the action.

Now will they be able to do anything to protect against EMP? A launch from certain locales would indicate an upcoming EMP. Would there be enough time to take ANY beneficial actions, or would that just overwhelm everything? Sure would be good to have some true scientific research on that, since the probability of the bad guys doing that is increasing daily.

RE: So what...
By ViroMan on 10/29/2010 11:10:39 PM , Rating: 2
An nuclear EMP attack if I understand its properties, would be incredibly strong yet localized to 2-3 cities. Computers, cars, radios, and tvs and all the minor stuff would not be affected by CME's BUT would be destroyed by a EMP due to the fact that an EMP is significantly more powerful. Everything with a cpu in it would have its cpu melt and its battery destroyed. Except lead acid batteries that are not connected. Transformers would have there windings melted not just a tad but completely into a pile of metal(if it didn't just outright explode).
Side note: Each time a transformer explodes it creates another smaller EMP wave.

RE: So what...
By Master Kenobi on 10/30/2010 12:20:17 AM , Rating: 2
There are ways of shielding against EMP.

RE: So what...
By mmatis on 10/30/2010 2:13:15 PM , Rating: 3
Including long transmission lines with transformers at their ends? And is the shielding cost ($$$ and weight) practical for non-military use?

RE: So what...
By randomly on 10/31/2010 1:23:09 PM , Rating: 5
Nuclear EMP is highly dependent on many variables. These include the weapon design, weapon energy, earth's magnetic field strength near the burst, and altitude amongst other variables. About 5% of the total energy of a nuclear air burst goes into an EMP wave. However in a vacuum over 30% of the energy released goes into the EMP wave. A high altitude burst (250 miles) can easily cover most of the continental US with a high energy EMP wave, it's not limited to just a few cities.

The physics is complex, there are about 30 different mechanism that contribute to the EMP wave and there are essentially 3 different waves generated. The first is a very fast rise time wave primarily due to the gamma ray burst. This is self limiting due to the physics to around 50,000 V/m and ~7 megawatts/square meter. This can induce currents up to several hundred kiloamperes in any conductor. The very fast rise time makes it difficult to shield electronic devices from this wave.

The second wave is primarily generated by the neutron flux from the weapon, the wave is considerably slower than the first and generates effects similar to lightning strikes and standard lightning protection mechanisms are effective.

The third wave is much slower, can last for several minutes and is generated by the burst deflecting the earth's magnetic field and the resulting oscillation as it snaps back. This is equivalent to what a Solar CME event does with similar properties.

You CAN shield against an EMP wave and not everything is just going to fry and melt.

RE: So what...
By tng on 11/1/2010 7:03:03 AM , Rating: 2
In other words, a moderately sized nuclear device 600 miles over Kansas and it is lights out for the whole of North America.........

RE: So what...
By drycrust3 on 11/1/2010 12:47:14 PM , Rating: 2
Yep! And you only need one bomb to do it. Of course, having a rocket to get the thing up there is a prerequisite to this sort of attack. So now you need to make a list of countries that have one bomb, a rocket, and no US $ to loose ... like North Korea.
An alternative is to find a satellite with one built into it and then hack into it and trigger it when it is over the USA. The beauty of this approach is because the whole internet goes down, no one will be able to find out who did it. Of course, it may happen that if the satellite has a Windows Operating system, it may be a virus that did it, but no one will know because the motherboard would have got fried in the process, so US won't even be able to point the finger at DPRK when the problem may have been caused by not getting the latest Nortons Antivirus updates.
And I know that some one will tell me no one would be sooooooo stupid as to put a nuke bomb into a satellite that orbits at the optimal height and has a Windows operating system now would they ... would they???

RE: So what...
By mmatis on 11/1/2010 7:52:37 AM , Rating: 2
Thank you very much for the info!

RE: So what...
By Paj on 11/3/2010 6:49:30 PM , Rating: 2
Very enlightening, thank you.

RE: So what...
By ekv on 10/30/10, Rating: 0
RE: So what...
By FaaR on 10/30/2010 10:35:08 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah, just take your paranoia and run with it in a direction completely unrelated to the article to which you reply. That sounds like a winner to me!

RE: So what...
By ekv on 10/30/10, Rating: 0
RE: So what...
By drumhellar on 10/30/2010 2:40:55 PM , Rating: 2
Solar flares.

Seeing as how they have happened in the relatively recent past, with bad, bad consequences, vs massive hacking from the Chinese, which has yet to have any real effect.

RE: So what...
By ekv on 10/30/2010 10:32:24 PM , Rating: 2
Solar flares are fairly common.
relatively recent past, with bad, bad consequences
That's not even a decent crevice-pull. Of course, maybe you think this link is more real than Chinese hacking

As I said, something on the order of a Carrington event ... then we have agreement. We get something like 24 to 48 hours notice on large solar events. In 2003 there was a solar flare measured to be about X45. Satellites were shutdown in anticipation and life was interrupted for a day or two. Not that big a deal. In fact, there've been only 6 events at X10+ over the last decade. Get real.

Now ask the Pentagon what they think about the reality of (daily) Chinese hacking. Or, if you don't believe their actual statistics, perhaps ask Google.

RE: So what...
By Paj on 11/3/2010 6:51:47 PM , Rating: 2
Your grasp of basic grammar is as tenuous as your argument.

RE: So what...
By ekv on 11/5/2010 8:05:10 PM , Rating: 2
Not likely.

RE: So what...
By mmatis on 10/30/2010 2:09:19 PM , Rating: 2
"They" was in reference to the initiators of an EMP, which might cause more long-term issues than a hacking.

RE: So what...
By karndog on 10/30/2010 1:51:01 PM , Rating: 2
I may be wrong, but my understanding is that the damage to infrastructure is minimized when there isnt any power running through the system. So the advanced warning might predict where the CME is going to hit and send a warning to utilities in the area to produce an intentional blackout that will protect power stations/transformers/power lines/end users.

The data is fed into CCMC computers where models predict currents and fields in Earth's upper atmosphere and transmit this information to the ground. The Solar Shield team is then prepared to send alerts to utilities with details about the GICs.

RE: So what...
By mmatis on 10/30/2010 2:04:14 PM , Rating: 2
I think the article says the transformers are damaged from the inducted current caused by the solar storm magnetic field on the long transmission lines. If that's correct, then by isolating the transformers temporarily from the long lines you MAY be able to prevent the damage during the storm and then rapidly bring the system back up once it decays sufficiently.

RE: So what...
By tygrus on 11/1/2010 4:12:36 AM , Rating: 3
Insulate, Isolate and earth. Cover transformers with protective shielding which is earthed. Just before predicted event the transformers and transmission are taken out of service. The transmission lines are switched to additional earthing. Large currents have to be localised and not allowed to propagate through the system and cause more damage

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