Solar explosion leads to blackout, March 10, 1989

-March 10, 2017

The sun constantly sends particles and energy toward Earth, but on March 10, 1989 astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun that released a billion-ton cloud of gas, 36 times the size of the Earth, toward our planet at a million miles per hour.

The solar flare and CME (coronal mass ejection) from the explosion caused immediate short-wave radio interference that jammed radio signals in Russia. CMEs can cause magnetic storms affecting communication systems, power grids, and astronauts in space.

Two days later, a cloud of solar plasma with electrically-charged particles, reached Earth's magnetic field causing a geomagnetic storm (see the NASA animation below). The collision caused intense auroras at the poles that could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba. As it occurred during the Cold War, some feared the lights in the sky were a nuclear strike.

The storm created electrical currents in the ground beneath North America, and on March 13 a blackout occurred after the Hydro-Québec power utility grid crashed when safety systems sensed a power overload caused by the currents pulsing through the ground. Power systems in areas of igneous rock, like Québec, are the most vulnerable to the effects of intense geomagnetic activity because the  geomagnetically induced currents find less resistance flowing through the power transmission lines than through the earth.

Nearly six million people lost power for almost 9 hours in Canada, over 200 power grid problems were reported across the United States.

In space, satellites tumbled out of control for hours, NASA's TDRS-1 communication satellite recorded hundreds of anomalies as particles from the explosion reached it, and the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-29), launched on March 13, experienced issues with some of its sensors.

Geomagnetic storms previously caused auroras, disrupted telegraph service and caused fires in 1859, 1882, and 1921, and major flares erupted on the sun in August of 1989, affecting computer systems, and in October and November of 2003 causing storms that affected navigation systems, satellites, and radio signals.

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For more moments in tech history, see this blog.
EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on March 10, 2014 and edited on March 10, 2017.

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