Europe readies for solar storm risks

This January 23, 2012 image provided by NASA shows a solar flare erupting on the Sun's northeastern hemisphere
This January 23, 2012 image provided by NASA shows a solar flare erupting on the Sun's northeastern hemisphere. The image was captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Europe has launched its first space weather coordination centre to raise the alarm for possible satellite-sizzling solar storms that also threaten astronauts in orbit, plane passengers and electricity grids on Earth.

Europe launched its first space weather coordination centre Wednesday to raise the alarm for possible satellite-sizzling solar storms that also threaten astronauts in orbit, plane passengers and electricity grids on Earth.

Though impossible to predict, a worst-case scenario mega-storm can happen at any time, leaving the world without Internet, telephones, television, electricity and air and rail transport for days on end.

Limited precautions can be taken, but early warning is key, say experts at the (ESA) which runs the centre from Brussels.

"A pilot can always land a plane... because they have alternatives (to satellites) for navigation, but if they get the disturbance without warning, at the wrong time, that can be dangerous," Juha-Pekka Luntama, head of ESA's space weather division told AFP at the launch.

Even a slight satellite glitch can put navigation out by 100 metres (yards)—enough to miss a runway.

Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere protect the planet from radiation released during and —some of the most severe forms of space weather.

Smaller eruptions usually have little noticeable effect—perhaps slight problems with or mobile phones.

But a major on the scale of an event in 1859 that crippled global telegraph systems could have severe impacts today.

A ""—which sends flying towards Earth at a speed of some 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) per second and plays havoc with long transmission lines— caused surges on telegraph lines so strong in 1859 that offices caught fire and operators received electric shocks.

Such super storms happen "only very occasionally, perhaps once or twice a century," according to ESA's director Thomas Reiter.

Luntama added that the most statistically happen around the solar maximum—a period of greatest activity in the 11-year solar cycle—where we are now.

"In some ways you can say that the next two years is the time period that a solar event is more likely," he said.

An 1859-like storm today could claim about 50 to 100 satellites—10 percent of the total in orbit, at a cost of billions of euros, according to ESA.

But probably the biggest threat to Earth lies in electric power grid surges.

"In the worst case, what could happen is that the transformers in the power grid are damaged and in that case, replacement of the transformers can take weeks or months," said Luntama.

Even if only a small part of the grid is damaged, overloading in neighbouring systems can lead to more blackouts that spread domino-like, such as the nine-hour power blackout in Quebec in Canada in 1989.

Astronauts orbiting Earth on the International Space Station (ISS), closer to the source of the radiation, could be at high risk of a severe solar storm, as could plane crews and passengers flying over the polar regions.

Precautions would include turning off satellites to lessen the risk, reducing the load on power grids, astronauts taking cover in well-shielded part of the ISS, and planes being diverted or even grounded if communications become unreliable.

Once witnessed by space weather watchers, the fallout from a solar storm takes between 17 and 48 hours to reach Earth, depending on its severity.

The coordination centre, a central point for enquiries, will draw on the expertise of dozens of European universities, research institutions and private companies.

A similar service already exists in the United States.

For the moment, the ESA service—funded by 14 member states— is free.

The centre started operating six months ago and is expected to be fully operational by 2020—part of wider, multi-billion euro ESA system that also tracks objects in space that pose a collision threat.

What is space weather?

Space weather is caused mainly by storms and eruptions in our volatile Sun sending potentially dangerous radiation towards Earth.

It also causes the spectacular "aurora" light displays that have awed so many in the polar regions—a beautiful show of radiation hitting Earth's magnetic field.

The Sun randomly and suddenly ejects bursts of its component plasma or magnetic matter in events called coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and is subject to equally arbitrary bursts of radiation called solar flares.

The life-giving star at the centre of our solar system emits radiation at temperatures of millions of degrees and constantly ejects charged particles and radiation that travels through space on solar wind.

Sudden flares or outbursts can cause geomagnetic storms that affect Manmade systems in space and on Earth, though the magnetosphere protects us humans from the worst effects on the ground.

CMEs, for example, can trigger magnetic current surges on long terrestrial lines like electric power lines.

The magnetic disturbances can also throw out radar and radio signals.

Out alone in space, satellites are easy targets.

Solar flares boost the level of radiation that reaches Earth and its atmosphere, which expands and becomes more dense for satellites to move through, causing drag that reduces their lifetime.

Satellites can also fall victim to sudden magnetic charge changes damaging their electronics.

There is a small risk for humans.

Some research says aircrew flying frequently at high altitude on long-haul flights may receive a radiation dose equivalent to several chest x-rays from exposure to solar flare radiation.

Astronauts, too may be in danger, hence extra-protective shields against radiation bursts that are provided in parts of the orbiting International Space Station.

Space weather is monitored by looking at the Sun with satellites and telescopes and measuring changes in the Earth's magnetic field and radio noise.

Even the aurora are monitored—changes in their shape can indicate solar storm events.


Explore further

Solar storm barreling toward Earth this weekend

(c) 2013 AFP

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Apr 03, 2013
Can anyone tell me if they have placed capacitors within the national grid (s) to protect from surge?
Surely this is the cheapest and most simplest method of providing safety to the network?

Or am i missing something? Without electricity, we are finished as a society.

Apr 03, 2013
CMEs, for example, can trigger magnetic current surges on long terrestrial lines like electric power lines.

Here is a perfect example of where astrophysicist code words are used to explain a well known process here on Earth. Let's ask the simple question; what is a "magnetic current"? Usually, in a wire here on Earth where there is energy flowing, we call that an electric current, a fairly well explained phenomenon. After all, any moving particle in an EM field is by definition an electric current, the idea that we need to call it something other than what it is seems like an exercise in futility, although this is a practice in which astrophysicists are well versed.

Apr 03, 2013
Can anyone tell me if they have placed capacitors within the national grid (s) to protect from surge?
Surely this is the cheapest and most simplest method of providing safety to the network?

Or am i missing something? Without electricity, we are finished as a society.


Sorry, it is much more complex than that. Adding capacitance or inductance to AC transmission lines changes the power factor. At a power factor of 100%, the transmission line transmits the most power possible. At 0% no power is transmitted. Some load is neutral in its effect on power factor (incandescent lights and electric heat), but most load is electric motors which acts as inductors. So electric companies--and some customers--add capacitors for power factor correction. Too much capacitance, and the power factor starts dropping.

The real problem from flares and CMEs are induced currents in transmission lines. These can exceed voltage or current safety limits and result in breakers opening.

Apr 03, 2013
The first/"great" Northeast power blackout was caused when a breaker at Niagara Falls had a coil burn out. The backup coil kicked in without the breaker opening, but a slight (order of 2 volts) pulse was created. Unfortunately, the load on the power lines from Niagara Falls to NYC exceeded a point where they acted as a magnetic amplifier. The pulse got amplified and when it reached about 5 kV breakers started tripping for local substations, which amplified the pulse further. By the time it reflected back to Niagara Falls, it was strong enough cause all breakers to open--if they could.

Something similar happened in Quebec. An induced current from a solar flare caused at least one (overcurrent) breaker to pop. That caused others to pop, and pretty soon the entire province was off line.

Anyway the best way to handle these things is to have enough "extra" capacity in the system. The utilities say 15% is minimal, 25% is better, the regulators try to talk them down.

Apr 04, 2013
A very big part of the problem is the ground induced current (GIC) that is created by the magnetic effects of the storms. The GIC then travels up the grounding means that all parts of the grid have and causes damage. That is where the real protection means should be.

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