What Would Happen If Every Satellite Suddenly Died?

Imagine totally disconnecting from the world at large: internet, mobile service, television — all totally gone, leaving you free from virtual distractions and the accompanying stress. It’s a fantasy most people have had at some point, even if they never plan on following through. But what would happen if everyone was suddenly cut off — and it wasn’t by choice?

Chances are it wouldn’t be quite as enchanting as you think. At least not in the scenario Richard Hollingham of the BBC explores — a world where all of Earth’s satellites suddenly and inexplicably shut down. Things may start off innocently enough, but we’d eventually see how much our world really does depend on these chunks of metal floating overhead:

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.

What’s more, our society is highly dependent on GPS signals to accurately tell time, and as our ability to tell time declines, so does our entire world:

When the GPS signals stopped, back-up systems (employing accurate clocks on the ground) kicked in. But, within a few hours, time had started to slip. A fraction of a second in Europe, compared to the US; a tiny difference between India and Australia. The cloud began to fail, web searches became slower, the internet started to grind to a halt. The first power cuts came later in the evening, as transmission networks struggled to balance demand. At computerised water treatment works, engineers switched to manual back-up systems. In major cities, traffic lights and railway signals defaulted to red, bringing transport to a standstill. Mobile phone services, already patchy, finally failed in the late afternoon.

It’s not just our constructed rules for order that would see problems, but our health and most base human needs could also start to suffer.

Retailers used weather data to order the right foods — no point in stocking up on meats for the barbecue if the outlook was gloomy. Farmers relied on forecasts for planting, spraying and harvesting. The aviation industry needed forecasts to make decisions that would affect the lives of passengers.

Aircraft are fitted with radar to detect bad weather or other sources of turbulence, but they take note of constant updates from the ground…. If passengers on trans-Atlantic flights had known this, then they would have thought twice before boarding. Without weather satellite data, a storm system developing rapidly over the ocean was missed and the aircraft flew straight into it. The severe turbulence experienced by passengers left several injured and the remainder badly traumatised by the experience. But at least they got to complete their journey. Around the world, other travellers were stranded thousands of miles from home.

The likelihood of all this happening is, of course, incredibly low. But the prospect certainly makes you appreciate the massively interconnected web that is our world, even if it is tiresome at times. You can check out the rest of this fascinating thought experiment over at the BBC. [BBC Future]