What would most likely be the first thing I, as an average citizen of a developed nation, notice, if within a matter of hours, all major commercial and government satellites were to be destroyed in a non-hostile manner?

Non-hostile as in not by attacks from foreign nations, but by for example a rapid increase in major space junk collisions.

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    $\begingroup$ The space junk is primarily in low Earth orbit (LEO) whereas GPS and other GNSS are in MEO and most communications are far away in GEO. So I think you are asking specifically about "widespread LEO satellite destruction" but even that is pretty difficult as they are still spread out in altitude. Also, it may not be as sudden as a few hours. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I'm not familiar with the orbital altitudes of specific satellite types, but this is meant more as a hypothetical, what if this happened as opposed to what is the likelihood of this happening. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ As far as the results are concerned, does it even matter how this happened? Unless you're trying to avoid answers like "We'll attack the nation that caused it." $\endgroup$
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 22:10

4 Answers 4


What would you notice first?

  • Satellite navigation: immediately (depending on how often you use satnav)
  • TV: immediately (depending on how often you use TV). Even if you don't use satellite TV yourself, your TV provider may receive some of its channels via satellite
  • within a day or so: weather forecasts no longer include satellite imagery, and accuracy goes down
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    $\begingroup$ World tensions rise as governments' spy satellites / military communication satellites are no longer available. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ Elon Musk starts a tweetstorm since he has no way for SpaceX to make money. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ Especially because of Organic Marble's first comment, someone you know would find out from Facebook or Twitter (or from news-type ad results) very quickly, I'd bet. But, SpaceX would make more money, with the opportunity to help replace all of those essential satellites, which they otherwise would not get to do. $\endgroup$
    – jpaugh
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ I assumed that "a rapid increase in major space junk collisions" wasn't going away. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ not just satnav, with a loss of GPS smart phones' locations services would be degraded. $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 7:16

The experiment has been done, with a single, geosynchronous, satellite, Galaxy IV, in 1998. The immediate effect I noticed in the San Francisco Bay Area was loss of the live NPR feed. I did not check other networks. Second effect, my Chevron Texaco credit card could not be used.

The Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galaxy_IV mentions NPR, CBS and Reuters, gas stations and 80% of (US? North American?) pagers were affected. The failure was attributed to tin dendrites, and a previously unknown, unrelated, failure, of the onboard backup. Tin dendrites are an unwanted side effect of eliminating lead from solder.


It really depends on how the satellites are actually destroyed. Here are a few ideas of how they are destroyed, which would cause the effects predicted:

  1. Kessler Syndrome- Widespread destruction, most likely of LEO satellites. Honestly, this probably wouldn't affect the average citizen much. LEO satellites are useful for a huge variety of things, from weather, imaging, some communication, military purposes, etc, but few of these have to do with typical day-to-day operations. The one thing a standard person could probably see would be an increase of reentry debris.
  2. Solar Flares- This would be most likely to disable many GPS satellites. More noticeable, however, would be the effects on Earth. Anything strong enough to break GPS satellites would probably affect anything plugged in to the wall as a type of EMP. GPS satellites being out would be the biggest effect. GPS satellites are more vunerable to these, being inside the Van Allen belts, but the GEO satellites, including most communication satellites, could also be affected, particularly for a strong storm. Those would be noticeable as many TV stations would fail.
  3. Close comet pass- This would destroy many satellites in all orbits, but not all satellites. Similar to some combination of the above.
  4. Aliens? Would start with the GEO satellites most likely, and thus failed TV signals are likely to be one of the first things noticed.
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    $\begingroup$ This answer seems more of a "how" as opposed to the "what" posed by the question. $\endgroup$
    – fred_dot_u
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ The "what" depends on the "how". I've included the whats based on the how. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @PearsonArtPhoto Do you mean the coma would damage/destroy the satellites? I doubt the likelihood of the rocky core itself hitting anything is anything but very small. What is the size of the part of a coma dense enough to be fatal for satellites to encounter? $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, that is what I mean. It is also why I indicated only some satellites being destroyed, not all. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ A simple rewording would improve this answer. Like "What you'd see would depend on how the satellite's are destroyed. Here are some possible causes of widespread satallite destruction, and what symptoms you would see:" $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Commented Apr 27, 2018 at 17:51

Even if this was caused by some “non-hostile” event, that is not the conclusion the world’s militaries would jump to. In the event of a sudden and unexpected loss of any significant portion of their satellite infrastructure (to say nothing of literally all), every country in the world would immediately assume that they were under attack from an unknown, but extremely hostile and sophisticated force.

I have no idea what contingencies the world’s militaries have planned for such an attack, but

  1. I’m sure they’ve got one (militaries spend a lot of time thinking up contingencies to everything they can think of, and on top of that totally outlandish scenarios are often given to officers in training at academies as exercises—and the best ideas often find their way into a manila folder somewhere), and

  2. I’m pretty sure you’d know (at least broad-stroke portions of) your country’s contingency pretty quick if this actually happened. Air-raid sirens, lockdown, emergency broadcasts, etc. all seem extremely likely.

Things would remain tense, but since it happened to literally everybody it would rule out a lot of usual suspects and hopefully the world would avoid actually going to war over it. But even if they became convinced that they don’t know what happened and can’t immediately act, nations would necessarily have to remain on extremely high alert and it would take a long time before everyone got comfortable with the idea that this was actually a freak natural occurrence.


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