Exoplanet Research / Protecting the Grid

Hosted byGeorge Noory

Exoplanet Research / Protecting the Grid

About the show

Physicist and astronomer at Princeton University, Joshua Winn, researches the properties of planets around other stars. In the first half, he discussed how exoplanets form and evolve and whether some of these celestial bodies might be capable of supporting life. Currently, more than 5,500 exoplanets have been identified, and it has only been since the mid-1990s, when technology advanced to the point that we could start discovering planets around stars well outside our solar system. Because of the way many of the exoplanets are detected (their presence is inferred when they transit in front of their star), it is hard to determine specific characteristics of these worlds and if they are Earth-like, though he estimated that 10-20% of all planets may be around the same size as Earth.

Many exoplanets are discovered by NASA's mission, TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). One of the intriguing discoveries in the field was that of 'Hot Jupiters,' massive objects that orbit their suns in just a few days and must have temperatures that run in the thousands of degrees. Astronomers had previously thought that Jupiter-sized worlds would have to form far away from their parent star. Winn said it's conceivable that an unidentified planet could exist in our outer solar system. Known as the Planet Nine hypothesis, evidence for this undiscovered body is based on anomalies observed in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune. He also touched on such topics as the Big Bang, the James Webb space telescope, the interstellar object 'Oumuamua, and the Breakthrough Starshot initiative.

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In the latter half, history professor and author Bill Forstchen shared updates on developing a viable protection plan for America's electrical grid, as well as the threat that solar flares, and high-tech weapons may pose to our world. He described the Tesla-type technology of directed energy weapons as moving at the speed of light and shooting down specific targets. This kind of attack would be more localized than an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapon, he noted. Forstchen believes that an EMP strike (such as by North Korea) is one of our greatest threats, as it could cripple an entire nation in a matter of seconds. A massive solar flare or coronal mass ejection (like the Carrington Event of 1859) could also be devastating to the power grid, and he is concerned that as we enter the solar maximum, the Earth may be due for such a hit.

While the US Congress has proposed different funding initiatives, nothing has gone through on a federal level, and the government has yet to develop a significant grid-strengthening system. Forstchen estimates that it would take $30-50 billion a year for America to seriously protect or harden its power grid, and it could be done within 5-10 years. He believes that inaction may be due to the notion of "expectation and normalcy"-- that the grid worked yesterday and will continue to work tomorrow. "The problem is," he lamented, "the average component in our electrical system is 40-50 years old. We're pumping our electricity from a system that is from the 1970s and 80s, [and is] woefully inadequate." At this point, local action among communities and states may be the best plan to get grid protection moving, he suggested.

News segment guests: John M. Curtis, Charles Coppes

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