We may not always realise it, but we depend on space technology orbiting the Earth. So what would happen if it all stopped working? At a recent international conference on “space hazards”, I listened to a series of speakers outline doomsday scenarios. These included a massive solar storm disrupting satellite communications, a cyber attack partially disabling the GPS system, and debris knocking out Earth-monitoring satellites.
Threats to this space infrastructure are real, and governments around the world are beginning to think seriously about improving the resilience of the systems we rely on. To focus their thoughts, and with a nod to that pioneer of threats from space, Orson Welles, here is what might happen if we suddenly encountered a day without satellites…
There was nothing sudden. Planes did not fall out of the sky, the lights didn’t go out or the water supplies fail. At least, not at first.
Some things did stop working straightaway but, for most people, they were more an inconvenience than anything else. The loss of television satellites meant that many families missed the cheery rehearsed smiles of breakfast TV presenters, and were forced to talk to each other over their cereal instead. There were no foreign correspondents on the radio, no results of the latest international sports fixtures.
But outside, the loss of global satellite communications was putting the world in danger. At a bunker somewhere in the United States, a pilot squadron lost contact with the armed drones they were flying over the Middle East. The failure of secure satellite communications systems left soldiers, ships and aircraft cut off from their commanders and vulnerable to attack. Without satellites, world leaders struggled to talk to each other to diffuse mounting global tensions.
Meanwhile, over the Atlantic, thousands of passengers watched movies, oblivious to the difficulties on the flight deck as pilots struggled to talk to air traffic control. Without satellite phones, container ships in the Arctic, fishermen in the China Sea and aid workers in the Sahara found themselves isolated from the rest of the world.
As people started work in their offices in Tokyo, Shanghai, Moscow, London and New York, they found it difficult to talk to colleagues in other countries. Email worked and the internet seemed okay, but many international phone calls failed. The rapid communications systems that tied the world together were unravelling. Rather than shrinking, it seemed as if the Earth was getting larger.
As presidents and prime ministers gathered their crisis teams, a new threat to global stability began to emerge: the loss of the Global Positioning System (GPS). As far as most of us were concerned, GPS helped us travel from A to B without getting hopelessly lost along the way. It had transformed the lives of delivery companies, helped emergency services reach incidents much quicker, allowed planes to land on isolated runways and enabled trucks, trains, ships and cars to be tracked and traced. But GPS turned out to be much more pervasive in our lives than many of us could possibly have realised.
GPS satellites are little more than highly accurate atomic clocks in space, transmitting a time signal back to Earth. Receivers on the ground – in your car or smartphone for instance – pick up these time signals from three or more satellites. By comparing the time signal from space with the time in the receiver – the receiver can calculate how far away the satellite is.
But there are plenty of other uses for these accurate time signals from space. Uses that, it emerged, our society had become increasingly reliant on. 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.