How to get a spacecraft going during a power outage

In the same week as scientists at the University of California’s Space Sciences Laboratory (UC) planned to release a NASA spacecraft, lab director  Steve Beckwith received news of power outage.

Down the middle of the fall fire season, California was worried that high winds, hot air, and obsolete equipment might cause the fire and power supplies for UC Berkeley Campus, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). In that case, the service company sent word: the day after, on Wednesday, 9 October 2019, they would cut power to 800,000 clients. The failure was the greatest in the history of the state.

Beckwith became aware of a problem with his squad. The spacecraft bearing the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) shuttle was to launch from the Cape Canaveral location in Fla..that the same week. When the spaceship used the machine in orbit, Beckwith’s lab was to be online. They would need a reliable source of backup energy to do so, apart from electricity. “I felt we weren’t going to succeed at all,” said Beckwith. 

The power shutdowns were like a Hail Mary from a facility featured with several security problems. PG&E generates energy for 16 million residential consumers in Central and Northern California. Still, it is unreliable due to its low-tech facilities, its lengthy transmission lines, its limited workforce, and numerous other issues. A campfire was ignited in 2018 by the investor-owned company, leaving 85 dead and damaging Paradise city. In January 2019, a judge proposed that the utility should limit consumers of power amid high winds as a regulation effort, while the organization tackles the more significant, more structural safety concerns.

Ten months after, citizens of California in 34 counties experienced the impact of shutting off electricity. Those who work or live on the PG&E grid’s footprint had to address new issues about being resilient: How long would they live without electricity? What was their backup energy? Beckwith required more concrete things: chord extensions. Large-capacity, massive-duty cable lengths, from 5 to 100 feet (15 to 30 meters). And he wanted them instantly.

The Space Sciences Laboratory lies on the hill of the Silver Lab Addition House in the corner northeast of the main campus of UC Berkeley. The laboratory had emergency energy outlets situated in the clean rooms of every floor. The trick is to connect the emergency outlets to workstations within the building’s library, where scientists can take real-time numbers. At the same time, the satellite passes over California for the first time. Beckwith said that they had powered the library after spending nearly a thousand dollars on extension cables from Home Depot.

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