TOPICS > Science

Lost in Space

May 20, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Across the country late yesterday, millions of beepers went silent. That meant that as many as 90 percent of the nation’s 40 million pager users didn’t get their messages. Doctors were among the first affected — hospitals page them in emergencies. At Valley Medical Center in Fresno, California, operators resorted to old-fashioned technology–2-way radios, telephones and the public address system.

DOCTOR: Sometimes you’re busy in other parts of the hospital. Like right now I’m in the ER. I’m not sure what is going on on the floor. You know, I would get a page hopefully but not right after here, I’ll head up to the floor and make sure everyone’s okay.

SPENCER MICHELS: Others felt the impact too. It was harder, sometimes impossible, to get approval for credit card payments. And small businessmen — like this man who owns a refrigeration company — claim they lost customers. Some radio and television stations couldn’t get their signals transmitted. Programming on National Public Radio failed to reach its affiliates all over the country, and some stations had to record feeds off telephone lines, losing quality in the process.

CNN’s Airport Television Network-programmed specifically for waiting passengers–was knocked off the air. The problem was a malfunctioning communications satellite called Galaxy IV. The $250 million, five-year-old satellite is owned by PanAmSat, a subsidiary of Hughes Electronics. Galaxy IV is one of one hundred eighty-seven satellites in orbit at 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. They transmit information from one part of the globe to another. At about 6 o’clock Eastern Time yesterday, Galaxy IV’s control system failed, as did its backup switch. The satellite lost its orientation to the Earth and spun out of the proper position to transmit data. Other communications technologies, such as cellular phones, were not affected by the Galaxy IV problem because they work on a separate system. PanAmSat says it’s now working on an alternative to Galaxy Four.

DAN MARCUS, PanAmSat: If we can’t use Galaxy IV, then what we will do is move that traffic. Some of that can be done immediately. For some of the television traffic, for instance, where we would actually move a satellite in the location where Galaxy IV is today, that would take a couple of days.

SPENCER MICHELS: Company spokesmen say that thousands of satellite dishes may have to be repositioned to receive signals from the satellites that will be used to replace Galaxy IV.

JIM LEHRER: More now from Joseph Pelton, Professor of Telecommunications at George Washington University, author of 16 books, including The Satellite Revolution, and Clayton Mowry, the director of the Satellite Industry Association, which represents satellite manufacturers and service providers, including Hughes Electronics. Is there anything you can add to that as to what went wrong?

CLAYTON MOWRY, Satellite Industry Association: Well, I think what we saw today was a lot of people that were relying on satellite technology. They didn’t have the proper backup for some of the services there because satellites have historically been so reliable, some 99 percent success rate, and that because of that, we’re perhaps a victim of our own success here. They didn’t have the backup plans in place for the paging networks and some of these other services to switch them over quickly.

JIM LEHRER: So what happened to Galaxy IV? We still don’t know what went wrong, right?

CLAYTON MOWRY: There was something to do with the processing unit that keeps it oriented to the-

JIM LEHRER: Gadget Number Four didn’t work right.

CLAYTON MOWRY: Gadget Number Four.

JIM LEHRER: Number Five, et cetera. Is it history now, Galaxy IV?

CLAYTON MOWRY: They are still reviewing that. To my understanding, they’ve told all their customers not to expect that satellite to come back on line.

JIM LEHRER: Would you-Professor Pelton, would you expect it to come back on line? Do you think it’s over?

JOSEPH PELTON, George Washington University: They’ve indicated that in two days they will have a replacement satellite in position to take over the service. If it is only just a processor problem, there may be a way using backup for facilities to get control of the satellite and bring it back. But right now what probably should have happened is there should have been a contingency plan that immediately switched over to other satellites and had people to reposition to other satellites, rather than the long delay that did occur.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you don’t send somebody up there to fix a satellite. How do you fix a satellite?

JOSEPH PELTON: Well, these satellites are a tenth of the way to the Moon.

JIM LEHRER: Which is how many miles?

JOSEPH PELTON: Well, it’s 22,300 miles, more or less.


JOSEPH PELTON: So that’s a long, long way. We have had some repairs of like Hubble, and-

JIM LEHRER: That’s the Hubble Telescope.

JOSEPH PELTON: Yes. The Hubble Telescope. And those are in low Earth orbit, and we can get up there with a shuttle to do some repairs and recovery, but these satellites are way too far out to-so the repair has to be done by electronics and by commands to back up facilities you don’t send a person-

JIM LEHRER: In other words, essentially, you send up a radio message, right?


JIM LEHRER: And hopefully there’s something in there that you can switch it over-

JOSEPH PELTON: Switch it over.

JIM LEHRER: And it just hasn’t worked.

JOSEPH PELTON: Well, not yet. And right now the solution is to move to a different satellite that will be in position in about two days, as Dan Marcus had indicated, and then see whether they in the longer term can get the satellite back and in operation. You know, there’s like 200 of them up there now, and there are plans to launch over 1,000 of them in the next five to ten years. So we have to have better contingency plans because we rely on these services for the banks and everything. And so we need to have those backup plans, rather than assume that the satellites-even though they’re 99 percent reliable-will always be there and always get things right.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Mowry, that was one of the things that’s come out of this story, is this development, is that-for us to discover how dependent we are on the satellite. Give us-we know about pagers. We know now about NPR. We know about the CNN Airport thing. What else is dependent-what else works off satellite that we use every day?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Satellites touch just about every aspect of your life. When you get up in the morning, and you turn on the television, most of those feeds are coming to your cable system are coming via satellite. When you go and use our bank card at an ATM machine, there’s a good chance that they’re going to have a small dish on the top of that bank transmitting back and forth your account data. If you’re going to Wal-Mart to do some shopping, good chance that their inventory is going to be tracked by your purchases there via satellite-so just about every aspect of your life and probably things that a lot of people don’t think about day to day.

JIM LEHRER: And 170 are up there. Now, these are commercial satellites, the 170, right…


JIM LEHRER: How did they get up there?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Well, they’re launched on expendable rockets that go up that drop off their stages as they reach higher orbits, and they’re placed into these geo-stationary positions above the Earth at 22,000 miles.

JIM LEHRER: And who-

JOSEPH PELTON: But in the future we’re going to have a lot in low Earth orbit as well. There’s the Teledesic system that plans to launch 288 satellites in low Earth orbit — this is Bill Gates’ system — and there are others in medium Earth orbit. So we’re going to have satellites in different orbits providing a wide range of services.

JIM LEHRER: And a thousand, do you agree with that number, Professor Pelton’s number?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Yes, I do. Over the next 10 years we expect better than 1,000 satellites to be launched.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the need? What’s driving the need for these?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Well, part of it is new services that are provided because of improvements in technology, things like digital technology, smaller handsets, more powerful spacecraft to be able to provide services to consumers. Things like Direct TV and Dish Network and Prime Star now have brought consumers directly into an interface with satellite technology on-

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Well, they’re getting their programming-

JIM LEHRER: You’re literally watching the television programs like this one-

CLAYTON MOWRY: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: And it’s coming into your television set directly from a satellite.

CLAYTON MOWRY: A small, 18-inch pizza pan-size dish on your house can deliver 175 channels of programming.

JOSEPH PELTON: The book Satellite Revolution, the revolution is this idea of going directly to the consumer, rather than through the traditional carriers like AT&T. And so now the aerospace companies are now providing services directly to the consumer. It started with the direct broadcast, but now starting in September, Iridium, which is a Motorola subsidiary, is going to provide direct cellular telephone services from the satellite. And so this is going to continue to change satellite services directly to end users.

CLAYTON MOWRY: Let me add-

JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead.

CLAYTON MOWRY: I just might add there that the DBS products that I talked about-that bringing television-

JIM LEHRER: That’s direct broadcast satellite.

CLAYTON MOWRY: Yes. Bringing the television directly into the homes, that’s the fastest selling consumer electronics product of all time.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, let me ask you a real quick dumb question. Is there room up there for all these satellites?

JOSEPH PELTON: Well, it is getting crowded, and we have found better and better ways to reuse frequencies and to deal with inter-system interference, but actually I’m heading up a study at George Washington University, which is funded by the Japanese, the Canadians, the Europeans, and NASA, to look at new ways to try to get the satellites to not interfere with each other, because we are worried about how to make all these systems work and not interfere with one another.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see this as a problem?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Space is a big place, but that said, there are a lot of potential issues for interference or knocking into space junk that may be up there, particularly in the lower Earth orbit, so it is something that the industry is looking at and studying, and I’m happy to hear about this project.

JIM LEHRER: How much-Spencer Michels said in the setup that Galaxy IV was a $250 million satellite. Is that what they go for these days?

CLAYTON MOWRY: They range in price, but that is about par for that kind of-that’s a very capable spacecraft, highly capable, high-

JOSEPH PELTON: In other words, that includes the launch services, which is a big part of it, but we mentioned over a thousand satellites proposed. And the combined cost of these systems is about $80 billion. So essentially this is, if you will, a wireless way to get broad band access to cyberspace. And it’s-this broad band access to the Internet that is driving a good deal of this-

JIM LEHRER: You’re going to have to explain that. What do you mean?

JOSEPH PELTON: Well, in other words, people today have modems that go through like America Online and other-

JIM LEHRER: Through telephone lines.

JOSEPH PELTON: Through telephone lines.


JOSEPH PELTON: And it’s very slow. And they wait, and particularly when they’re trying to get a video image, and they wait, and they wait, and so now people say we want faster access, and this faster access is either going to have to come through fiber or so-called cable TV modems or through satellites. And the satellite industry says we want a share of that market.

JIM LEHRER: And the business-explain the business side of this now, the-Hughes owns this Galaxy IV. Now how do they make money on that?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Well, they contract with paging companies, broadcasters-

JIM LEHRER: They pay what-how do they-how is the rate determined? Say NPR or a pager company pays to Hughes for Galaxy IV-

CLAYTON MOWRY: It’s based on the amount of capacity of the spacecraft that they’re using, much like billing for a telephone call and the amount of call traffic that might be carried over a particular telephone line or fiber-optic cable, they contract for a segment of that satellite dedicated capacity to be able to provide their service for you-a paging service or a broadcast service.

JIM LEHRER: It’s like leasing a line, a telephone line.

CLAYTON MOWRY: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And how does that-who sends-how do these satellites get up there?

CLAYTON MOWRY: They’re launched in space-

JIM LEHRER: By whom?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Well, there’s a number of launch vehicle companies here in the United States.

JIM LEHRER: These are private companies.

CLAYTON MOWRY: Yes. Lockheed-Martin, Boeing Corporation, in Europe they have a consortium called Alcatel that launches from French Guiana. The Russians launch and the Chinese launch.

JIM LEHRER: What’s it cost, an average satellite launch?

CLAYTON MOWRY: Well, it ranges roughly for these larger class of spacecraft from about $50 million to about $110/120 million.

JIM LEHRER: Anything you want-

JOSEPH PELTON: Well, what I would say is that the biggest barrier to cost is the launch services, that the satellites have gotten better, more reliable, faster, and lower in cost, but the launch is the main barrier to getting the service effectively.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, sorry to ask you such basic questions, but this is a new, new world we’re in, and a lot of people don’t know about satellites, including me. Thank you both very much.