WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 - Space weather can significantly impact electric power systems on Earth, sometimes knocking out power for millions of people for extended periods of time. On March 9, 1989, a coronal mass ejection (CME) set off a chain of events that knocked out power to the Canadian province of Quebec for about nine hours. Although CMEs hit Earth often and those with the potential to shut down an entire power grid are rare, scientists want to make sure that the U.S. is prepared.

Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, are creating models to simulate how space weather affects the power grid. The project, called Solar Shield, has incorporated six test sites around the U.S., where computer simulations of forecasted space weather affects are compared with actual observations on the ground. The simulations can be used to improve operational space weather forecasts, such as those issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center, the U.S. government’s official source for space weather forecasts.

“We really want to create models that accurately show incoming space weather,” says Antti Pulkkinen, a research astrophysicist at Goddard. “That way, space weather forecasters can provide the grid operators the information they need to know what’s happening when they start seeing weird fluctuations in the power grid.”

With accurate advance warning, power engineers have several options to protect the grid, says NASA. With a day or two of notice, power grid companies can alter maintenance schedules to make sure that as many critical lines are up and running as possible. Even with just 20 minutes of lead time, grid operators can take steps to prevent blackouts and damage, by injecting reserve power into the system to help stabilize system voltage, for instance.

Solar Shield combines research efforts from several agencies and is supported by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology directorate.


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