Satellite Night Vision Could Spare California Post-Disaster Headaches

Earth from Space Institute Director Miguel O. Román has a plan for a quarter-billion-dollar satellite to "revolutionize" how power grids recover from earthquakes and other disasters.

He just doesn't have a quarter-billion dollars yet. But he says he has the technology.


Román's dream satellite would monitor in real time how disasters take down power grids. "You've got 59 utilities in California," he says. "And they operate in silos, right? They have their own reporting mechanisms." Widespread utility failure, then, can be hard to track in a major disaster affecting more than one utility's coverage zone at a time. (Say, the Big One, in Southern California, where many people have one utility keeping the lights on at home and another keeping the computers on at work.)

Román says the better satellite view we can obtain of Earth, the more precisely we can map a power problem out, moment by moment and street by street. “Earthquakes," he says, “ironically, are a really good way to stress the system and start identifying those vulnerabilities that can result in cascading failures down the road."


Román received a presidential award in 2017 for his decade as a civil servant scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. During his time at NASA, Román worked on a cutting-edge nighttime Earth-imaging program known as Black Marble. Looking down on the dark side of Earth, a satellite detects the footprint of how each community lights the night. After a natural disaster that light signature often changes. Night vision can also help track human disaster—such as the displacement of refugees.

The Black Marble project involved ramping up the sensitivity of night-vision sensors by a factor of 7. Román compares the new technology to the advent of radar in weather forecasting in the 20th century: What started as a novelty has become indispensable.

Román now directs the Earth From Space Institute (EfSI) in Maryland, funded by the non-profit Universities Space Research Association. The EfSI pulls together scientists, engineers and other experts to sharpen satellite data and package it in ways that can improve and save lives. 


A Puerto Rican grandmother is the reason for Román's quarter-billion-dollar dream. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, Román's grandmother lived for more a year on the island without power. Part of the problem with a breakdown so large is the sheer challenge of comprehension. It’s hard to map out how the failures sprawl, connect and cascade.

"I'm very hopeful and I'm very excited because I think we're entering into a new era of first times," says Román. "We're truly going to revolutionize the way we handle disasters. And maybe because of that, lives will be saved and we're able to prosper more as a country."

Photo: NASA