This Week’s Solar Flare Illuminates The Grid’s Vulnerability

Tuesday, June 14, 2011
By Paul Martin

By PETER BEHR
NYTimes.com

A massive burst of solar wind that erupted from the sun Tuesday is expected to deliver only a “glancing blow” to the Earth’s vulnerable magnetic field, NASA officials said yesterday. But it will preview what some experts call a potentially existential threat to the power grids of the United States and other nations, and the populations that depend on them.

Antti Pulkkinen, who leads NASA’s “Solar Shield” satellite-based detection system at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said the cloud of ionized particles from Tuesday’s violent “coronal mass ejection” will largely miss Earth, giving some North American residents a glimpse of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, this weekend. “It will not be a major event [for] the power grid,” he said.

However, NASA spacecraft detected a much larger eruption last weekend on the backside of the sun headed away from Earth, generating a much faster-moving cloud.

“If this event was on a collision course with the U.S., we would have had a major space weather event,” Pulkkinen said. “In this regard, we got lucky.”

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