The Great Pager Blackout of 1998

More

Remembering the day that the Galaxy 4 satellite fell out of its orbit around the Earth, knocking out beeper service to 45 million Americans.

SDO_1024.jpg

WASHINGTON -- On May 19, 1998, the Galaxy 4 satellite fell out of its designated orbit for still-disputed reasons. Instantly, 45 million people across America lost service to the indispensable mobile gadgets of the day: pagers. 80 percent of the beepers in America went silent.

Emergency room doctors and law enforcement officials were worried, but if the mainstream media accounts are any indication, ordinary people were happy to have their devices silenced.

"No twee-tweet from the little box on the husband's waistband. No twee-tweet from from the gizmo on the teenager's wrist," Los Angeles Times columnist Shawn Hubler wrote, "No twee-tweet from anybody's purse or backpack or briefcase."

The "no one's buggin' me" sentiments thread through accounts of the time, but of course, no one gave up their gadgets in exchange for the "sweet silence" of the AP's story. It took a day or so before PanAmSat, the satellite's operator, wrote it off as a loss and began to use the Galaxy 6 satellite to get service back up.

NASA solar researcher Dean Pesnell mentioned the Galaxy 4 in a talk Thursday night about the newish Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft designed to image the sun with better resolution than ever before, at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The Galaxy 4 was one of four satellites that have been lost over the last 20 years, and while we're not exactly sure what happened to it, some scientists suspect that spaceweather played a role in its loss.

Pesnell's project, the SDO, is the most ambitious solar research satellite ever launched. The higher resolution images it takes of the sun might help us make sense of how the sun's magnetic field works. Right now, we're heading into Solar Cycle 24, which will feature an increase in sunspots and solar activity after the solar minimum years of the last half decade.

Understanding how and why the sun unleashes the occasional solar storm is important because the particles it tosses around the solar system help determine what's called space weather. Space weather doesn't just knock out the occasional satellite, but it can damage our electrical grid by disrupting the earth's magnetic field. One of the real doomsday scenarios for modern civilization is that a massive solar storm would knock out large portions of the grid, leaving hundreds of millions without power and taking months to repair. A National Research Council report found such a catastrophe could cost up to $2 trillion in the first year after it happened. That would be many times the estimated cost of Japan's recent natural disasters, and would make the loss of pager service for a day seem like nothing.

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. On February 15 of this year, the sun experienced its largest solar flare in four years, which was accompanied by the release of a mass of charged particles that just missed Earth. If it had hit us, the event wouldn't have plunged us into darkness for months, but it might very well have done some damage on the high latitudes.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In