If you keep up at all with science news, you might know that magnetic storms generated by the sun will be on the rise the next couple of years. A storm of sufficient size could throw us all back into the dark ages, according to reports. But don’t worry, NASA is working on ways to protect us.
The storms are called “Coronal mass ejections”--basically a giant electrical storm--and they create what is called geomagnetically induced current. North America’s endless miles of power grid are a beacon to this current, and from reports by the US Department of Energy and others the grid probably won’t survive a big storm. Damage to the grid is a serious issue, as some of the larger equipment runs on a 12 month (or more) replacement cycle if it’s destroyed.
Solar storms ebb and flow in a cycle, and we’ve been on a slow spell for a few years. The solar storm cycle is expected to pick up between 2011 and 2013, though, and with our heavy reliance on technology, it’s probably going to hit us hard. The last big solar storm was in 1989, and it blew out power in Quebec for over 9 hours.
NASA’s plan is a simple one: Solar Shield is a detection system designed to see an ejection from the sun 24-48 hours in advance. Scientists will calculate trajectory and speed of the storm in that time, and when it’s 30 minutes or so from hitting a particular area, they’ll be able to warn the power company to shut down the grid. Without an active current in the grid, no damage will be caused when the storm hits, it’ll just be pretty lights in the sky. This means it’ll be a sudden blackout for customers in that area, but a temporary blackout to avoid large-scale damage to the US power structure seems vastly better than a meltdown that causes power loss for months.
It’s an innovative plan. I can’t wait for the first high-end electrical storm to burst from the sun so we can see it in action.
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