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NASA Keeps its Cool in Derecho Aftermath
The powerful summertime derecho that moved from Illinois to the mid-Atlantic states on June 29, 2012, took power away from more than a million people, homes, businesses. Despite the power loss, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., kept its cool.

Contingency planning is something that NASA does for launches, field missions, equipment and even loss of power. Power is essential to maintain the integrity of the advanced technologies being developed at NASA, so planners made sure that specific buildings and areas within them can "keep their cool."

"There are three major power lines that feed in into the center," said Ray Rubilotta, deputy director, Management Operations Directorate at NASA Goddard. Because of the strong winds of the derecho, all three of them failed for the first time in the history of NASA Goddard. "Just after the storm, two of the three lines feeding power to NASA Goddard had gone down, so there was still one active line," Ray said. "But around 1 p.m. EDT on Saturday afternoon [June 30] a tree gave way toppling the power lines of that last line into Goddard." That's when various Goddard buildings were on generator-only power, while most other buildings were in the dark.

derecho image derived from satellite data

The AIRS images for June 29 show the crescent shape of the initial stage of the derecho as it gathered strength on the Michigan-Indiana-Ohio border and began its rapid eastward movement. The infrared image shows the high near-surface atmospheric temperatures blanketing the South and Midwest United States, approaching 98 F. Credit: NASA
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"The unthinkable happened when the third and final feeder went down," said Amy Fedorchak, deputy chief of facilities at NASA Goddard. That cut all power to NASA Goddard. "Yet we were able to maintain seamless operations in the buildings critical in the support of our missions." Amy noted that during the outage, all of the generators on-center also needed to be refueled, so they were being continually maintained.

Technology that will fly on the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission resides in one of NASA's clean rooms where the environment has to be more sterile than in an operating room. NASA was able to keep power to that building through a generator.

Several other buildings were also kept operating thanks to generator power. One of the buildings houses the Space Environment Simulator Chamber (SES). The SES is a large thermal vacuum chamber. It's about 60 feet high (with about 30 feet being located below ground level) although the usable area is "only" 40 feet high. It can subject a test payload to temperatures between -310°F to 302°F, some of the extremes that satellites will experience in space. During the derecho event, the SES contained some of the equipment that will fly aboard the James Webb Space Telescope, so it was critical that it remained in operation.

Another generator kicked in to maintain the Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS). EOSDIS is a key core capability in NASA's Earth Science Data Systems Program. It provides end-to-end capabilities for managing NASA's Earth science data from various sources – satellites, aircraft, field measurements, and various other programs. For the Earth-observing satellite missions, EOSDIS provides capabilities for command and control, scheduling, data capture and initial processing.

Another thing that needed to be taken care when power failed was to limit the amount of humidity coming into the buildings in order to maintain the integrity of computers and other electronics. "When the power failed, we had to go into the buildings using flashlights to shut the steam valves to protect the buildings," said Frank Gavel, building and structures supervisor for Capitol Technology Services Inc. on the Goddard campus.

Whenever two electrical feeder lines are out, Goddard uses generators to power four specific buildings to ensure that satellite mission operations continue, because NASA monitors and controls satellites from Goddard. In addition, several other buildings that support clean rooms and testing chambers have their own generators.

NASA Goddard's Tree of Life

NASA Goddard's 'Tree of Life' Damaged

This willow oak was already more than a century old when construction on NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., began in the late 1950s. The tree suffered trunk damage from the 2012 summer derecho.
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The first electric feeder line was restored at 7:15 a.m. on Sunday, July 1. The second electric feeder line came back online at 9 p.m. EDT that night, which allowed NASA Goddard to open with electricity to every building. NASA Goddard was under a "Code Blue," or liberal leave policy, however, because hundreds of thousands of people in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area were still without power.

It wasn't until Tuesday, July 3, at 11:30 p.m. EDT, that the third and final electrical feeder line came back online and NASA Goddard was restored to fullpower.

A derecho (pronounced "deh-REY-cho") is a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. Damage from a derecho is usually in one direction along a relatively straight track. By definition an event is classified a derecho if the wind damage swath extends more than 240 miles and includes wind gusts of at least 58 mph or greater along most of its length. These storms are most common in the United States during the late spring and summer, with most of them occurring between April and August.

The loss of all power to the center proved that NASA Goddard is prepared to maintain the integrity of the operations, and that NASA is ready to weather any storm.

Related Links

› 'NASA Satellites Examine a Powerful Summer Storm' (07.05.12)
› NASA's Earth Observatory: 'Power Outages in Washington, D.C., Area' (July 2012)
› Video: 'East Coast Derecho' (07.05.12)
› Information on derechos from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center website
› MMS mission website
› James Webb Space Telescope website

Rob Gutro
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.