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Saturday, 19 February, 2000, 20:38 GMT
National grid gets space protection
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington in Washington DC

The world's first space weather prediction system for national electrical power grids has been installed in England and Wales.

AAAS Expo
The full system was implemented on the 31 January, near the start of the year which will see the Sun's 11-year cycle of storms peak. During the last peak in 1989, six million people in Quebec, Canada, suffered a total electrical blackout in just 90 seconds due to a severe storm crashing in from space.
Quebec
This three-image sequence shows how, in just over just three minutes...
"But space weather has a very large footprint - large areas of the globe are at risk," said John Kappenman, of Metatech Corporation, who are consultants to power generation companies.

"These systems are even more vulnerable now [due to greater reliance on more sensitive electronic systems] and we are not going to grow out of this any day soon."

Advance warning

The system Metatech has installed in England and Wales "continuously updates on a one minute basis - it needs to be that regular".

The predictions are based on information from space satellites, in particular a US one called Ace. This is positioned more than one and a half million kilometres (one million miles) nearer the Sun than Earth, and records any adverse radiation or magnetic energy travelling towards out planet.
Quebec
...the rapid rise of magnetic disturbance on 13 March, 1989, brought havoc...
This allows for a 45-minute advance warning, with 95% accuracy of prediction.

The primary problem caused to power grids is losing control of voltage regulation. However, Mr Kappenman said, with these warnings nations may be able to assess which regions are likely to be most stressed and then boost the voltage regulation systems in those areas.

Saving dollars

Longer-term forecasts are still rather tentative, but data from Japanese and European satellites are helping them to improve.
Quebec
...to Quebec, Canada, causing a total electrical blackout.
Better predictions of space weather will also benefit the owners and operators of satellites. They will be able to shut down systems and perhaps face their craft away from trouble. But there are also more subtle ways in which benefits can be gained as David DesRocher, Senior Project Engineer at the Aerospace Corporation, explained.

"During space storms the atmosphere thickens, dragging the satellites into lower orbits and they then have to be boosted back up. If predictions mean that the boost can be done before the storm, then much less fuel would be used.

This means a satellite's lifespan could be extended - that's a way of turning these predictions into dollars."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
John Kappenman of Metatech
We are developing technology to predict space weather
The BBC's Sue Nelson
Experts anticipate several big storms over the next few years
Gary Heckman, NOAA
"The Sun is really a disturbed place"
See also:

18 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
19 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
18 Feb 00 | Science/Nature
07 Feb 00 | Science/Nature
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