Archive for Sunday, May 24, 1998


May 24, 1998


Pagers were beeping again by Thursday, but it may take awhile for the country's confidence in satellites to return.

and Richard Burnett

The Orlando Sentinel

Cape Canaveral, Fla. -- America's pagers buzzed with an unwritten message from space last week: We are all dependent on satellites, and they are not infallible.

When an anonymous satellite called Galaxy IV broke down last Tuesday, the world's growing constellation of seemingly fail-safe satellites suddenly appeared quite vulnerable.

``This is a shot across the bow to say: Hey, let's think about our vulnerability here,'' said Ray Williamson, a professor at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.

Most of the paging, television and radio services that went down with Galaxy IV returned to normal by Thursday. But it may take a lot longer for the country's confidence in satellites to return.

Simple things can cripple a satellite: A broken piece of electronics, solar flares, meteors and space junk. Those threats will be getting worse in the coming years, experts say.

Over the next three to four years, the sun regularly will spew storms with electrical pulses that can damage satellite electronics. This natural cycle of sun activity will peak in 2000, with what experts predict will be a nasty storm period.

``The common citizen can expect some frustrating outages,'' said Steve Pearson, NASA space environment effects manager.

Newer satellites are particularly vulnerable to the solar flares because they have smaller, more easily damaged components, experts said.

Meteors also are a danger, and a large shower is expected in November 1998 or 1999.

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Man-made trash -- from rocket launches -- provide an additional threat to satellites.

Some rogue country also could try to use a nuclear bomb to disable all or most of America's satellites, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute.

That risk has prompted the U.S. Department of Defense to look for ways to fortify its satellite system, said Gil Klinger, deputy undersecretary of defense for space.

Even when satellites are not being threatened by external forces, there's a greater likelihood that as more operate, parts simply will fail randomly. That's what happened on Galaxy IV, said Wilbur Pritchard, a Maryland satellite engineer.

America's military, economic and scientific dependence on satellites grows each day.

Much of the world's communication -- image, voice and data -- is routed through the world's 2,488 satellites. Only phone lines and internet traffic primarily are land-based, and even that's changing.

A 1985 Congressional report acknowledged the nation's vulnerability to the loss of satellites. If they all failed ``you would bring commerce and all kinds of services that we depend on to a halt,'' said George Washington University's Williamson, who authored the study.

When you use credit cards or a bank, accounts often are updated in computers overseas. The information travels via satellites, Williamson said.

When Galaxy IV failed, some retail stores lost inventory control, gasoline credit cards did not register at the pumps and corporate teleconferences were canceled.

The Galaxy IV failure, Logsdon said, was ``a wake-up call of how dependent we are on space systems for things that are an integral part of modern life.''

And the incident could be a ``preview of coming attractions'' in the year 2000, some experts say.

From space-based satellites to land-based telephone switches, countless critical communications systems could be affected by the year 2000 software flaw, which causes some computers to confuse 2000 with the year 1900.

Experts fear that many computer electronics either will freeze up or generate erroneous data when they are rolled over to Jan. 1, 2000.

The PanAmSat satellite outage is only a hint of the trouble that may be triggered by the so-called millennium bug, said John Pike, associate director of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington think tank.

Satellite networks are a critical link to communications worldwide, from cellular phones to weapons guidance and aircraft navigation.

Yet the computers running those networks could be as vulnerable to the problem as the oldest mainframe, he said.

The satellite networks rely on computers that are controlled by thousands of software programs and millions of lines of programming code, Pike said.

And it is those computers that are the likely year 2000 targets.

The computer systems are so extensive, it seems improbable that communications companies will be able to find every year 2000 problem, he said.

Wherever it strikes, the year 2000 problem is expected to hit the software on the ground and as a result disrupt satellites in the air, agreed David C. Hall, a year 2000 expert and computer consultant in Oak Brook, Ill.

The PanAmSat satellite problem illustrates how huge numbers of people can be affected by a malfunction of only one high-tech machine, said Mark Haselkorn, a year 2000 consultant for the National Science Foundation.

So even if communications companies could extinguish the year 2000 problem in 95 percent of their systems, the remaining 5 percent could still be crucial to providing service for millions.

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