A Single, Severed Cable Cut Contact Between Russia and Its Satellites

The cause was, as it always is, all too human.

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Cosmonauts speak with Russian election commission officials by video in order to communicate their votes at Mission Control in Korolyov outside Moscow, April 2012. (Reuters/Sergei Remezov)

Yesterday, at approximately 7:22 p.m., local time, the Moscow's Mission Control experienced something you never want to happen when the mission you're controlling is playing out outside the planet: silence. Complete, utter silence. Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, had lost contact with its satellites -- all of them. Which meant, as well, that it had lost contact with the International Space Station, and with the cosmonauts who call it home.

"Our specialists lack the ability to control the civilian satellites or send commands to the Russian segment of the ISS," a Roscosmos worker told RIA Novosti, Russia's state-owned news agency, at the time of the malfunction. That worker estimated that the glitch would take at least 48 hours to fix.

It ended up taking a little less than that -- and the malfunction has now been corrected. But the space-based silence, it turns out, was the result of a very terrestrial accident: While doing repair work on the Shchyolkovsky Highway outside of Moscow, a construction team severed a cable. And it turned out, unfortunately, to be the cable -- the one linking Moscow's Mission Control to the nation's extraterrestrial vehicles and workers.  

And, yes, the one cable. One cable cut, and a country's ability to communicate with its space infrastructure is severed, as well. 

Severed but, apparently, not severe. The ultimate impact of the severed communication was negligible, insist Roscosmos officials. While "civilian satellites cannot be sent orders," Space Safety Magazine's Merryl Azriel noted during the incident, "they do continue to downlink to their usual ground stations. Military satellites are not controlled from the same location, and so were spared all effects." And NASA, for its part, was able to step in to aid Roscosmos. Moscow Mission Control simply routed its communications through Houston -- so while Roscosmos wasn't able to send commands to ISS hardware during the time of the silence, it was ultimately able to communicate with its ISS-bound crew even as its primary connection to them was compromised.

Which is a nice thing when it comes to international cooperation ... but a less nice thing when it comes to Russia's space infrastructure. Though the U.S. space agency also downplayed the significance of the cable-severing -- a torn cable, NASA spokesman Josh Byerly told the AFP, "happens from time to time" -- it's hard not to see this as an embarrassment for Russia, which has recently seen several similar malfunctions in its space program. Already, bickering among Russia's telecom operators has commenced, with one operator (Akado) claiming that another (Rostelecom) had purposely tampered with the cable as a kind of extraterrestrial sabotage.

Whatever the cause of the accident, though, we know this: It was human in origin. And it's hard not to see this particular glitch as worrying for future ISS operations. On Monday, as the space station's Expedition 33 comes to a close, a Soyuz capsule will take three of the astronauts currently aboard the ISS -- the U.S.'s Sunita Williams, Japan's Akihiko Hoshide, and Russia's Yury Malenchenko -- back to Earth. (They'll land in Kazakhstan.) The homecoming will be, as so much is when it comes to the ISS, a international collaboration. One hopes that the infrastructure that will come together to make that homecoming possible will be fully functional. 

Then again: hopes. More than anything, the severed cable is a reminder of the fragility of the machines we rely on to keep us and the things we care about safe when they are beyond our grasp. The slightest malfunction in a space vehicle, whether it's a suit lining or an oxygen tank or a piece of foam, can have disastrous -- and tragic -- consequences. We explore the world beyond our own armed with the best knowledge we have and the best tools we've fashioned to put it to use ... but we explore it, too, with a measure of faith. Our connection to space is tenuous -- as thin and as fragile as the cables we use to connect us here on Earth. Just as a single ship's anchor can disrupt Internet access across several countries -- just as a 75-year-old woman can cut off Internet access to all of Armenia -- our link to the objects we've put into space can be severed in an instant.

Unless, of course, we build into our infrastructure redundancies and failsafes -- measures to ensure that human flaws cannot become technical ones. To ensure that road crews cannot, knowingly or otherwise, sever our link to space. "In Soviet times, we had reserve cables for these cases," an expert told RIA Novosti. "But in 1990s, they were eliminated. Now we don't have backups."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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