The Great Pager Blackout of 1998

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


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.