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UFO RoundUp, Volume 3, Number 21
May 24, 1998
Editor: Joseph Trainor
Satellite Failure Causes Communications Chaos

On Tuesday, May 19, 1998, at 6 p.m., the satellite Galaxy IV suffered a failure in its onboard control system. The backup switch also failed, and the $250 million satellite rotated out of position, completely disrupting communications here on Earth. Owned by PanAmSat, Galaxy IV was launched in June 1993. It is positioned in a geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above Kansas. USA Today called the incident "the biggest telecommunications failure in recent years," adding that the breakdown "wiped out pager traffic, halted credit card transactions and knocked TV and radio stations off the air."

Pager service to 45 million customers was lost when Galaxy IV rotated out of position. "Personal pagers use less than one percent of the capacity of the Galaxy IV satellite...The satellite's primary users are broadcast and cable TV companies and big telecommunications companies." "Galaxy IV remains in orbit but is no longer pointed at its target on Earth. PanAmSat, which is 81 percent-owned by Hughes Electronics, says an onboard navigational computer and its backup failed. It can't explain why." As of Friday, May 22, 1998, "PanAmSat still doesn't know why Galaxy IV's spin controller and backup failed. The satellite is beyond repair."

All 600 stations of the USA's National Public Radio were knocked off the air when Galaxy IV went haywire. They were served by the two channels of NPR Satellite Service routed through Galaxy IV. Other affected radio broadcasters included KOA-AM in Denver, Colorado, KSJN-FM Minnesota Public Radio in Minneapolis, Chicago White Sox radio, KIRO-AM in Seattle, Washington, KEX-AM Trail Blazers Radio Network in Portland, Oregon, KGIL-AM in Los Angeles and all four channels of World Harvest Radio International WHRI-SW short wave. Television broadcasters affected included the WB, UPN and CBS networks, Reuters TV, Motor Racing Network, CNN Airport Channel, the Chinese Television Network in Hong Kong and Soldiers Satellite Network, the USA armed forces entertainment network.

Private business TV stations such as Aetna, Microsoft, 3M and the Ford Motor Company's Fordstar service were also knocked out, as were the Ohio, Minnesota and Texas state lotteries. "Fred Landman, CEO of PanAmSat, knew he had trouble when one of his company's 17 satellites failed just after 6 p.m. Tuesday...About 90 direct customers of PanAmSat use Galaxy IV, so Landman was shocked when he learned 100 calls from the media had come in by 3 a.m. Wednesday. 'That was the biggest surprise,' he recalls." PanAmSat is currently retargeting and shifting customer traffic to other satellites in orbit. "We expect that within one week of the occurrence that virtually all service will be up in force," Landman said. (See USA Today for May 21, 1998, "Satellite's death puts millions out of touch," pages 1-B and 3-B. Also for May 22, 1998, "Satellite emergency a lesson in spin control," page 2-B. For more on strange events in the USA's heartland on May 19, the day of Galaxy IV's failure, see the related stories in this issue.)