UC Berkeley Was About to Launch a Satellite. Then PG&E Said It Was Cutting Power

Last Monday, just as the workday was winding down, Paula Milano received a phone call that threw her week into chaos. Milano, who helps run the Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley, had been gearing up for a satellite launch. But on the phone now was a friend of hers, with bad news: PG&E, the power company, was warning the school that its electricity could be cut Wednesday—making the campus one of more than 700,000 customers that would suffer the same fate.

The outage was a precautionary measure to keep forecasted high winds from jostling electrical equipment and starting the next massive wildfire . And it fell to this friend, who manages several buildings on campus, to piece together a plan for the coming plunge into darkness. Surely Milano’s lab could go without power for a while, right? “And I was like bleeeh—no man, no way,” she says. “We're launching a satellite on Wednesday.”

That’d be the ICON spacecraft, meant to study Earth’s ionosphere, the place that, as NASA describes it, is “where terrestrial weather from below meets space weather above.” ICON would launch out of Cape Canaveral in Florida, where a NASA team would oversee the spacecraft’s journey from ground to orbit on an air-launched rocket. But this Berkeley lab, which designed and built the satellite, needed to oversee the deployment of the instrument itself. It would be running mission control for the satellite from afar—assuming they had electricity. “If a scrub of the mission happens because of Berkeley, that's a huge black eye for us, and it's a huge public black eye for NASA,” Milano says.So as PG&E customers across Northern California scrambled last Tuesday to buy flashlights and water and fill their cars with gas, Milano mobilized a campaign to electrify the Space Sciences Laboratory.

Photograph: Steven Beckwith
Normally, NASA wouldn’t let mission control run on anything less than a stable grid connection, says Steven Beckwith, the lab’s director. “They basically will not let you launch if you're on backup power. But it turns out that the contract that we had written with NASA gave us that call.”The good news was that the university runs its own cogeneration plant, or cogen, which could provide some of the campus’ buildings with power in the event of an outage. But Milano and Beckwith had no way of knowing for sure if it would offer a steady source of electricity.