Protection from Space: What’s the Real Threat?

Last month President Donald Trump officially directed the Pentagon to establish a sixth branch of the U.S. Military to focus on protecting U.S. interests in space. This directive follows two other major space initiatives being implemented by the National Space Council aimed at sending missions not only back to the moon, but eventually to Mars. While the value of defending these interests can be debated, there is another aspect to space defense that is often overlooked—electromagnetics.

In today’s world we are so reliant on technology that there are major task forces created to prevent technological terrorism from occurring. Power grids are particularly susceptible to human-build electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices that can temporarily wipe out the networks that connect and sustain our daily lives. Similarly, a geomagnetic storm triggered by a burst of solar energy could overwhelm power grids and shut down cell towers and other communications networks. This would obviously be much worse than an average power outage as along with lights, the information we rely on so heavily would also be blacked out. Fortunately, this is not something that experts are taking lightly. Space-based research is progressing to safeguard our technology from these attacks from space.

Occasionally, our sun releases stored energy by way of a plasma blast or solar flare. These solar flares—or coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—are continually being studied by scientists to predict solar eruptions, but as with most things in science there are many questions left unanswered.

On the whole, the Earth’s magnetic field protects us against the blasting energy produced by the sun, but sometimes our planetary defenses are overpowered. When that occurs, radiation heats the upper atmosphere and electrically charges it. A visual example of this is the auroras seen at either of Earth’s poles. As solar physicist Thomas Berger is quoted as saying, “When the coronal mass ejection arrives a day or so later, it interacts with and dramatically changes Earth’s magnetic field the atmosphere’s uppermost layer is already warmer, and now it’s battling a cloud of plasma that creates currents in the atmosphere and on the ground. That’s when the power grids start to feel things.”

Berger continues, “When you create a giant current in the ionosphere, you also create currents in the ground. And the power grid is anchored in the Earth—grounded, as they call it. In the worst-case scenario, the CME would damage equipment, which would need to be replaced before you can bring power back to the grid.”

This all sounds like conjecture until you realize that the worst-case scenario, as pointed out by Berger, has already occurred, there is just no one left alive who saw it. The 1859 Carrington Event was a geomagnetic storm cause by an assumed solar flare. Though long before our current level of electrical usage, the charged particles were powerful enough to send a jolt down the telegraph lines and shock the operators. There are also reports of the charge generating enough heat that it lit telegraph paper on fire. Were this same effect to happen today with no warning the results could be catastrophic. Powerplants, transmission lines, substations, you name it, could all be fried. The result could leave cities or even regions without power for days—potentially even weeks. If this occurs it could lead to food shortages and civil unrest. The economic impact of this could be even more devastating. According to a 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, a single day without power in New York city would cost approximately $1 billion. Knowing the level of damage this could cause, what are the precautions? In the U.S. alone there are more than 27 federally-funded programs working on ways to prevent a repeat of the Carrington Event.

According to the Foundation for Resilient Societies, equipment to protect large power transformers costs about $350,000 per circuit. Safeguarding the grid against solar storms and EMPs would cost between $10 billion and $30 billion, the foundation says. Robin Manning, vice president for transmission at the Electric Power Research Institute said, “Utilities are already working on solutions some are building capacitor banks, which could work like batteries to absorb and dissipate excess energy. Or they can install electricity-dampening devices called Faraday cages, which are like force fields that can surround critical pieces of equipment and protect them from currents.” He continues, “The Department of Energy is also building better flywheels that can spin faster or slower depending on their charge. A flywheel could physically drain excess electricity off the grid, turning the sun’s electrons into movement and heat. Special dampening devices can also drain away or block excess current, but none of these is a perfect solution.” Manning also stated, “There are some devices that will ground that current out and remove it from the system, but it creates some unintended consequences. It’s like taking a drug that fixes a problem you might have, but it has unintended side effects.”

Currently, the best way to protect against solar storms is to forecast them and shut down the grid before it strikes—much in the same way as tornado sirens warn people to seek shelter before the tornado hits. The Department of Homeland Security has a “Solar Storm Mitigation Project” that is designed to promote awareness of potential disruptions cause by solar radiation. Research continues to improve the warning devices used by scientists to provide at least a few hours of notice before the radiation hits the Earth. “The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) provides crucial data about the timing and speed of solar bursts “DSCOVR” is really like a tsunami buoy,” says Thomas Berger.

While not perfect, new and better devices are being created constantly. A new sun-orbiting satellite called the “Parker Solar Probe” will launch this year that will study the sun’s corona at a level of detail previously not imagined. This will provide new insight into the sun’s behavior and help us to gain a better understanding about why CMEs are caused. There is another project also in development that is pending federal funding. This project, unofficially named the “Space Weather Follow-On Mission”, is geared towards studying the magnetic fields of the sun.

With this ever-looming threat still not fully understood, we look to those engaged in the engineering and science industries to share what they have learned with the next generation so they can take the next steps to understanding, mitigating, or even eliminating these threats to a population reliant on electrical devices.