So what would happen if all the satellites orbiting Earth suddenly, all at once, stopped working?
The effects would be felt unevenly around the world, Collins said. In communities that don’t rely on satellite technology, particularly in the developing world, potential disruptions to daily life likely would be less severe. In other places, like in the United States, the results would be severe at best. If the blackout persisted long enough, they’d be catastrophic.
If the satellites shut down, “tentacles of disruption,” as Collins put it, would begin to unfurl.
Without operational communications satellites, most television would disappear. People in one country would be cut off from the news reports in another. The satellite phones used by people in remote areas, like at a research station in Antarctica or on a cargo ship in the Atlantic, would be useless. Space agencies would be unable to talk to the International Space Station, leaving six people effectively stranded in space. Militaries around the world would lose contact with troops in conflict zones. Air-traffic controllers couldn’t talk to pilots flying aircraft over oceans.
Richard Hollingham described how this loss of would feel in a Wellesian story in the BBC in 2013: “The rapid-communications systems that tied the world together were unraveling. Rather than shrinking, it seemed as if the Earth was getting larger.”
Without global navigation satellites, the Global Positioning System (GPS)—the network of satellites and ground stations that tell us exactly where we are—would crumble. Some of the immediate effects would be frustrating, but not debilitating, like not being able to use a smartphone to find your way around a new city or track a run in a fitness app. Other effects would have far-reaching consequences. Millions of truckers and other workers in the delivery industry rely on GPS to crisscross the country each day, delivering food, medicine, and important goods.
The loss of GPS also would have disastrous results for our sense of time. GPS satellites are equipped with atomic clocks, which provide the very precise time that satellites need to calculate distance on Earth and tell GPS-enabled devices about their location. Satellites transmit this time to receivers on the ground, where power companies, banks, computer networks, and other institutions synchronize their operations to it. Without these clocks, the electrical grid, financial transactions, and, yes, the internet would start to fall apart. So too would the internet of things, the vast web of devices that talk to each other on our behalf.
“GPS is staggeringly integrated into our lives,” Collins said.
The shutdown of weather and remote-sensing satellites would gravely hamper our ability to predict weather events, like the major hurricanes that have swept across the Caribbean and southeastern United States this year. Farmers couldn’t get information that informs their crop and water management, and scientists wouldn’t have data for their studies of Earth’s features or climate change.