Heliophysicist Antti Pulkkinen of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and his team are installing scientific substations beneath high-voltage power transmission lines to measure in real time a phenomenon known as geomagnetically induced currents (GICs). In addition to gathering data important to the power industry, the project will allow heliophysicists to "reverse engineer" the data to learn more about the conditions in Earth's upper atmosphere that lead to the generation of GICs during severe space weather events.

Scientist Antti Pulkkinen is using high-voltage power transmission lines as a very large antenna to measure a space weather-related phenomenon. (NASA Goddard/Bill Hrybyk)

GICs typically occur one-to-three days after the sun unleashes a coronal mass ejection (CME), a gigantic bubble of charged particles that can carry up to 10 billion tons of matter. If a CME slams into Earth's magnetosphere, the impact causes electromagnetic fluctuations, which result in geomagnetic storms at Earth. These storms increase electric currents that in turn, drive the fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field near the ground. These surface currents can flow through any large-scale conductive structure, including power lines, oil and gas pipelines, undersea communications cables, telephone and telegraph networks, and railways.

To command and control the magnetometers, the team is using LabNotes, an iPad application developed at Goddard that will time-tag and geolocate the magnetometers' data, and then deliver the information to a server via a cellular data network. In addition to sending one sample per second, the LabNotes-equipped iPad-Mini also could monitor the data and send a text message should an event warrant attention.