The BBC Asks What Would Happen if All Satellites Stopped Working

Satellites provide both obvious and obscure but essential services to every aspect of our modern convenient lives.
Satellites provide both obvious and obscure but essential services to every aspect of our modern convenient lives.

Ignore, for the moment, how it would happen, and instead think about what would happen, if all the satellites ‘up there’ stopped working.  The BBC recently published an article asking – and answering – that question.

You can probably guess at some of the results of a global failure of all satellites.  Our GPS systems would stop working.  A lot of the content on our televisions and radios would disappear – not just satellite radio and tv channels, but regular programming on regular stations, too; much of which is distributed by satellite feed.

Some long distance phone communications would become more difficult.  While much/most long distance phone communications go by terrestrial microwave or fiber or cable, some is still routed via satellite.

Weather forecasting and reporting would become more difficult.

Air traffic control would deteriorate, although the transition from ground/radar systems to GPS type systems has been shamefully slow in the making and is only rolling out now.

So there’s a quick list of five effects of a loss of all satellites, none of which sound like they are life changing or life threatening, right?

But let’s now ‘drill down’ a bit further and consider some of the other uses and implications of satellites.

If our weather forecasting abilities deteriorate, that has massive implications on many things.  It interferes with optimized crop production.  It makes it harder to plan sufficiently in advance for severe weather such as hurricanes.  Airplanes are more likely to fly into storms rather than be able to avoid them.

The military uses of satellites is also significant.  A great deal of intelligence gathering is done via satellite – not just real-time and offline imagery (both still and video) but SIGINT too – monitoring ‘the other guy’ and understanding some of what he is up to.  Satellites are also used to control our growing squadrons of drones around the world, and are used for tactical communications by personnel in many areas of the overall military structure.

These continue to be bothersome, but not life changing.  There are many more ‘pin prick’ type issues such as this – ranging from the failure of many ’emergency locator beacons’ to a slow down in first responder services due to not being able to use GPS to most efficiently get where they are going.  But possibly the biggest problem would come from an unexpected aspect of the loss of the GPS satellites that has nothing to do with location data.

GPS satellites do a great deal more than simply tell us where we are.  But don’t sneer at the value of that ‘simple’ thing.  Most of us, several times a year, and possibly even several times a day, reply on our GPS units.  Or, if we don’t directly reply on the GPS to navigate with, maybe we rely on its derivative data – showing us a traffic conditions map, enabling us to decide which route we take to get between home and work.  Much of that traffic data comes from ‘probes’ – a fancy way of saying ‘monitoring the GPS in your phone, and if the GPS fails, so too do the probes and therefore, the traffic data in general.

However, we’re still only skirting the edges of problems when GPS systems fail.  Sure, commercial transport relies on GPS much more than we as ‘ordinary’ drivers, and we’ll all have to start to find our old maps and brush up on our map reading skills.  But, the really big thing, uncovered in the BBC’s largely simplistic analysis, is the other thing that the GPS service provides – ultra-accurate timekeeping.

The BBC claims that without the timekeeping services provided by GPS, the entire internet will degrade and possibly even collapse.  And all of a sudden, that’s a very different ballgame, isn’t it.  The article says

Our infrastructure is held together by time – from time stamps on complex financial transactions to the protocols that hold the internet together. When the packets of data passing between computers get out of sync, the system starts to break down. Without accurate time, every network controlled by computers is at risk. Which means almost everything.  [Our emphasis]

So, the loss of satellites – or, even worse, the loss of just the GPS satellites, would end up meaning TEOTWAWKI.

Now, how likely is it that such an event might occur?  More likely than you might think.

One major solar storm would be all it takes.  A major solar storm could destroy the GPS satellites (as well as so much more besides).  We’ve written about the risk of solar storms before, and in particular, in this article we quote from a study which estimates there to be a 12% chance of a super storm occurring in the next ten years.

So, there’s about a one in eight chance that some time in the next decade our modern world’s infrastructure will be destroyed.  Are you prepared?

2 Replies to “The BBC Asks What Would Happen if All Satellites Stopped Working”

    • David Spero

      I wondered about that, too, but who am I to disagree with the BBC! 🙂

      More seriously, I agree that much of the internet draws its time from non-GPS sources. But how much of the internet does use GPS? The thing about the internet is that while it is designed to be fault tolerant, it isn’t ultimately totally fault tolerant, and if some parts of the internet start having problems talking to other parts, then clearly connectivity starts to suffer, and so on and so on.

      You should post this response on the BBC site too and see how they answer. Thanks for adding it here.

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