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Power Companies Brace For Solar Storms 111

Posted by timothy
from the but-the-ice-cream-is-dripping-everywhere dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Three large explosions from the sun over the past few days have prompted U.S. government scientists to caution users of satellite, telecommunications and electric equipment to prepare for possible disruptions over the next few days that could affect communications and GPS satellites, leave thousands without power for weeks to months, and might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin. 'The concern is if the electric grid lost a number of transformers during a single storm, replacing them would be difficult and time-consuming,' says Rich Lordan, senior technical executive for power delivery and utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The largest solar storm in recorded history was in 1859, when communications infrastructure was limited to telegraphs. Some telegraph operators reported electric shocks, papers caught fire, and the Northern Lights appeared as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. The first of the three solar explosions from the sun already passed the Earth on Thursday with little impact and the second is passing the Earth now and 'seems to be stronger.' "We'll have to see what happens over the next few days," says space weather scientist Joseph Kunches. '[The third storm] could exacerbate the disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field caused by the second (storm) or do nothing at all.'"
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Power Companies Brace For Solar Storms

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  • Cell service, too (Score:4, Informative)

    by Matt_Bennett (79107) on Monday August 08, 2011 @07:26AM (#37020696) Homepage Journal
    Cellular service from CDMA providers Sprint could be disrupted as they use GPS trained oscillators to ensure synchronization between towers. Others could be affected as well, but I'm not sure of all that they use for time synchronization. I'd be suprised if they didn't use GPS, as GPS makes an extremely accurate clock very, very, cheap and low power. Sprint uses CDMA which needs decent time synchronization. It is very possible for CDMA to run without a good time reference, but it takes longer (really it's a tradeoff with time, power and hardware) to start up- why a GPS takes some finite amount of time to find your position, for example.
  • Re:bright tuesday (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 08, 2011 @07:41AM (#37020778)

    If anyone actually noticed the date on the article, "Published August 3, 2011" - the solar storms, FYI, were *last week*, and the peak of the impact was last Friday night, and has dropped to pretty much normal since.

    Sheesh, if you're gonna panic, at least check something current like spaceweather.com, and not panic over a NatGeo article published about "the coming problem" days after it already came & went, with little impact.

  • Even better. . . (Score:5, Informative)

    by dtmos (447842) * on Monday August 08, 2011 @07:47AM (#37020812)

    might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin

    The submission is so old, we can say what really happened. Aurora were visible in the United States as far south as Utah [spaceweather.com], Colorado [spaceweather.com], and Nebraska [spaceweather.com]. (Tip-'o-the-hat to SpaceWeather.com [spaceweather.com].)

  • by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Monday August 08, 2011 @07:50AM (#37020838)

    My issue is that Slashdot is "breaking" this story 5 days after National Geographic posted it and days after the storms already past yet the story reads like this is still an imminent event.

  • by freaxeh (1962440) on Monday August 08, 2011 @07:53AM (#37020858)
    I always thought that the 1989 Quebec Solar Storm was a good example of what might occur: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/sun_darkness.html [nasa.gov]

    In space, some satellites actually tumbled out of control for several hours. NASA's TDRS-1 communication satellite recorded over 250 anomalies as high-energy particles invaded the satellite's sensitive electronics. Even the Space Shuttle Discovery was having its own mysterious problems. A sensor on one of the tanks supplying hydrogen to a fuel cell was showing unusually high pressure readings on March 13. The problem went away just as mysteriously after the solar storm subsided.

    http://www.ips.gov.au/Educational/1/3/12 [ips.gov.au]

    Service restoration took more than nine hours. This can be explained by the fact that some of the essential equipment, particularly on the James Bay transmission network, was made unavailable by the blackout. Generation from isolated stations normally intended for export was repatriated to meet Quebec's needs and the utility purchased electricity from Ontario, New Brunswick and the Alcan and McLaren Systems.

    By noon, the entire generating and transmission system was back in service, although 17 percent of Quebec customers were still without electricity. In fact, several distribution-system failures occurred because of the high demand typical of Monday mornings, combined with the jump in heating load after several hours without power.

    So... It caused a cascading effect, just like the most recent New York blackout, scary stuff if it occured across even a marginal size of the USA.

  • Re:Cell service, too (Score:4, Informative)

    by Cyberax (705495) on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:00AM (#37020914)

    We're talking about microsecond-accuracy clocks. Even good quartz clocks drift too fast.

    There's the same problem in synchronous optic networks - endpoints _must_ be perfectly synchronized or it doesn't work at all. That's why communication companies are the biggest buyers of precise atomic clocks.

    The problem is, a lot of endpoints now use simple GPS receivers and not atomic clocks.

  • Re:Cell service, too (Score:4, Informative)

    by Matt_Bennett (79107) on Monday August 08, 2011 @08:04AM (#37020964) Homepage Journal
    Realistically, the accuracy of NTP is in the millisecond range, not close to what you need for CDMA. There is a standard (IEEE1588) that can get you to better than a microsecond, but that requires a specialized hardware PHY. GPS can give you continuous accuracy on the order of hundreds of nano-seconds easily, and it's not a huge expense to get to 10s of nanoseconds.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 08, 2011 @09:16AM (#37021718)

    This is hurting my brain a little. How do we know a third storm is coming when it's traveling at the speed of light toward us?

    The photons from a solar storm (primarily, the x-rays) travel at the speed of light.

    What's damaging, though, are the charged particles (primarily protons) emitted by the sun. These do not travel at the speed of light.

    So you see it coming before it gets here.

  • Re:Cell service, too (Score:4, Informative)

    by NoNonAlphaCharsHere (2201864) on Monday August 08, 2011 @09:18AM (#37021740)
    Everything you said is correct, however, in fairness, using a GPS receiver is using an atomic clock (by listening to one) -- the problem arises when your endpoint can't get a signal (say from interference due to solar flares) from said GPS/atomic clock.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 08, 2011 @10:09AM (#37022522)

    A photon is the basic unit of light and all other electromagnetic radiation (radio waves/etc), it has no mass, and travels at the speed of light. When the Sun produces a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), the key word is "mass" -- on average a CME contains about 1.7 billion tons of matter. Matter cannot travel at the speed of light. So 8 minutes after the CME, the photons arrive and you can observe that there was a CME. But the actual mass usually takes 1 to 5 days to arrive here from the Sun.

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