Politeía Digest

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

As the sun awakens, the power grid stands vulnerable

leave a comment »

By Brian Vastag

The sun is waking up.

And on June 7, it woke up Michael Hesse. At 5:49 a.m., the solar scientist received an alert on his smartphone. NASA spacecraft had seen a burst of X-rays spinning out from a sunspot. The burst was a solar flare — and a “notably large one” at that, Hesse said later.

The sun has been quiet for years, at the nadir of its activity cycle. But since February, our star has been spitting out flares and plasma like an angry dragon. It’s Hesse’s job to watch these eruptions.

If a big one were headed our way, Hesse needed to know, and fast, so he could alert the electric power industry to brace for a geomagnetic storm that could knock some of the North American power grid offline.

Hesse gathered his team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, where he is chief of the Space Weather Laboratory, and fed the latest data from four sun-staring satellites into powerful computers.

At 7:49 Hesse got his answer. An animated chart traced the predicted path of a huge arc of plasma — hot gas — hurtling through the inner solar system. But only the tail of the plume would lick Earth, arriving June 9 and driving a dazzling display of the northern lights from Alaska through Maine.

While a video of the eruption captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory showed an enormous plume spraying from the sun, this solar tantrum would not be the big one — it would not be the 1859 event all over again.

Sept. 1 of that year saw the largest solar flare on record, witnessed by British astronomer Richard Carrington. While tracing features of the sun’s surface, which Carrington had projected via telescope onto paper, he saw a sudden flash emerge from a dark spot. Although such sunspots had sparked curiosity for centuries — Galileo famously drew them, too, in the early 1600s — Carrington had no idea what the flash could mean.

Within hours, telegraph operators found out. Their long strands of wire acted as antennas for this huge wave of solar energy. As this tsunami sped by, transmitters heated up, and several burst into flames. Observers in Miami and Havana gaped skyward at eerie green and yellow displays, the northern lights pushed far south. Read more in The Washington Post.

Advertisements

Written by Theophyle

June 21, 2011 at 10:17 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: