NASA Data Mined For Solar Nuggets

The 135th and final space shuttle mission launched on July 8, 2011, and landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21, 2011. The era of the NASA space transportation system may have ended, but scientists are still mining the treasure trove of data gathered by the manned orbital rocket and spacecraft.

Scientists at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, recently used measurements from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission to predict how changes in elevation, such as hills and valleys, and the shadows they create, have an impact on power output in California’s solar grid.

image via Jan Kleissl/Jacobs School of Engineering

According to Jan Kleissl, a professor of environmental engineering at Jacobs, this is the first time this kind of model will be made available publicly on such a large scale, including all of Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area. It took the Triton Supercomputer at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego 60,000 processor hours to run calculations for the model. Utility companies and homeowners can use the model to get a more realistic picture of the solar power output they can typically expect to produce. This is an especially important tool for utilities, because it gives them a better idea of how much revenue they can actually generate, Kleissl said.

This data is important for a number of reasons. Changes in elevation can have a significant impact on solar power output. The longer it takes for the sun to rise above the local horizon in the morning and the earlier it sets in the evening, the more solar fuel is lost. Solar days are longest on top of tall mountains. They are shortest in steep valleys oriented north-south, where it can take more than an hour longer for the sun to appear in the east. “Solar resource models have become very accurate,” Kleissl said in a statement. “Now we are refining them down to the last few percentage points.”

Steve Duda lives in West Seattle, WA with three dogs and a lot of outdoor gear. A part-time fly fishing fishing guide and full-time writer, Steve’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Seattle Weekly, American Angler, Fly Fish Journal, The Drake, Democracy Now! and many others.