Local News

Technology- Dependent Organizations Scramble Without Satellite

Posted May 20, 1998

— No pages. No radio. No weather satellite pictures. A $250 million dollar satellite is spinning out of control. No one knows what caused Galaxy-4 to take off or when we'll have it back.

Restaurants that process credit cards, hospitals whose doctors wear pagers, airline pilots who rely on weather maps were all affected. Many have felt the impact of this satellite snafu, including a local radio station that temporarily went off the air.

WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill is back in operation, a little over a day after it lost its satellite feed of National Public Radio.

When the NPR feed went down, the station scrambled to pick it up off the Internet, then from WUNC-TV. Now, the station has repositioned its satellite dish to pick up NPR from a temporary satellite.

"It was aimed toward our old satellite, which is no longer there," says WUNC-FM engineer, David Wright. "So, I just kinda looked at another satellite. It's like looking at a different star in the sky."

It's not a star, but NPR's problem is more than 22,000 miles from earth. The problem is the same that affected pagers, ATM machines and communications signals around the world. The Galaxy-4 satellite, which lost its positioning system, and had to be shut down.

Richard McColeman, an education assistant at the Morehead Planetarium, says Galaxy-4 is still in orbit but is tumbing out of control.

"Its antennas are no longer facing the earth as they should," McColeman explains. "Its solar panels which receive power from the sun are no longer facing the sun."

No one knows exactly why Galaxy-4's on-board control system failed. The company that owns it, Pan-Am-Sat, has tried sending up signals to fix it, but to no avail. The company is now moving the orbit of another satellite to help pick up the load. That's expected to take about six days.


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