Out of control in space, on the fritz on Earth Galaxy fails: Satellite troubles underscore extent of dish communications in everyday life.


IT'S BEEN 50 years since Arthur C. Clarke, the author of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and other futuristic visions, proposed creating satellite relay stations in space. Although the first communications satellite was launched only 37 years ago, Americans have become so reliant on them that the outage last week of a single satellite silenced about 80 percent of the nation's pagers, disrupted program feeds to radio and television stations and created hardships for businesses.

There have been occasional satellite mishaps -- or "anomalies," as the industry calls them -- before, but never on this scale. Why Galaxy IV went out of control is a mystery.

This worries scientists who aren't sure what impact the most severe meteor shower in 33 years will have in November on nearly 500 communications and weather satellites circling the globe.

Americans use satellites so routinely they often don't realize that a robot hovering 22,000 miles above the Earth is involved. Transportation companies follow their fleets by satellites, which also relay data bursts from accounting information to merchandise orders. Satellite television, using pizza-sized dishes, is growing rapidly. Satellite-based CD radio is about to become a reality.

Most of the world's inhabitants have not reached the satellite age, though. For them, a new type of radio receiver was recently invented that doesn't rely on an electric power supply or batteries, but is simply wound up.

Theodoris Roditis, a businessman on Baltimore's Eastern Avenue, knows this technological disparity well. Until political crises disrupted his lucrative business, he shipped containers full of old sewing machines and manual typewriters to Pakistan. Items discarded by Americans as antiquated were welcomed there as new technology.

For years, the National Security Agency has been warning that the next threat to the United States may be cyber warfare. Much of the economy can be paralyzed by disabling satellites, a maneuver which is said to be far less expensive than blowing up bridges and railroad tracks and launching conventional attacks. The havoc caused by the Galaxy IV outage proves those warnings ought to be considered seriously.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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