A day without satellites would affect us all

October 7, 2019  - By
A solar flare in 2015. (Photo: Photo: Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA)

A solar flare in 2015. (Photo: Photo: Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA)

You wake up and turn on the TV. Your usual shows aren’t airing. You flip on the radio and learn that the Paris and Tokyo stock markets have closed. Back on TV, CNN is trying to use Skype in an attempt to cover what’s happening around the world following a solar superstorm.

In a U.S. bunker, the military has lost contact with armed drones flying over hostile areas in the Middle East. Loss of global communication satellites makes it difficult to send commands and surveillance data to soldiers, ships and aircraft, rendering them vulnerable to attack.

Throughout the day, more challenges arise. First responders don’t have access to their location systems. Delays in ground and air traffic begin to develop. Systems that depend on GPS time stamps — ATMs, power grids, computer-data and cell-phone networks — begin to fail, and the cloud becomes unstable. The internet soon collapses.

These events take place just a few hours into “A Day Without Satellites” as presented by Pål Brekke, solar physicist and senior advisor at the Norwegian Space Agency. Brekke spoke at the plenary session of ION GNSS+ on Sept. 17 in Miami.

Brekke reviewed the Carrington Event of September 1859, the first documented solar superstorm. In that event, a solar coronal mass ejection (CME) hit Earth’s magnetosphere, and its effects were observed and recorded by British astronomers. The storm wrought havoc with telegraph systems.

Today, a solar storm of this magnitude would cause widespread disruptions, blackouts and damage from extended outages of the power grid, communications networks, and of course, GNSS. The solar storm of 2012 was probably as big, but we were lucky — Earth wasn’t in the ejection path.

Without more data, it’s difficult to predict how often such superstorms take place, but it’s a sure bet that the scenario Brekke presented will happen eventually. To prepare, agencies around the world are studying and planning for the phenomenon, including the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (COPUOS), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Space and emergency agencies in the U.S, European countries and other countries are also developing plans.

Good to hear in the face of a threat that would undoubtedly affect us all.

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.