Satellite Hacking: Where Cyberwar Meets Spacewar

Don't Lose Sleep Over This One Kids

Space: the new cyber crime frontier touches on some important, and quite reasonable, concerns about vulnerabilities in our space architecture such as space junk, general overcrowding, and so on. However, one concern (the sexiest one from a headline grabbing perspective of course) is a bit overblown:

Mark Roberts, who pioneered the introduction of cyber elements into the war games that the MoD runs, hypothesised a scenario in which hackers take control of one or multiple redundant satellites and use them to crash into more vital ones.

“There are lots of satellites in orbit at the moment that have been taken off line,” he explained. “They still have propulsion, they have the ability to be restarted. Somebody particularly nasty could hack one of these things and then start to manoeuvre it.”

Now, I would never say never when it comes to technical vulnerabilities but I will say that, having actually worked on satellite control systems a little, that this is not something that keeps me up at night. I touched on this last year:

In 2000 I was CEO of a wireless company that partnered with Lockheed-Martin to demonstrate a COTS solution for remote satellite control. In six weeks we did something nearly impossible. We used a wireless Palm VII PDA, hopped through commercial networks to NASA, and actually sent real-time commands to the WIRE spacecraft. We did this from Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control building but we could have done it from anywhere. Let me assure you that clearing the massive security hurdles for this project was no simple task. Our proposed architecture required input from engineers and executives at Palm Computing, AT&T, NASA, Lockheed-Martin, and one other agency that won’t be named. Not only was it secure, but the system was only live for a brief demonstration period before connections to commercial networks and the Internet were severed.

As I said in that piece there are vulnerabilities (and those are increasing) but I doubt anyone short of state sponsored hackers would have much chance to not only gain full control but to also successfully steer a compromised satellite into another “vital” craft. That is not only an immensely complicated operation but it is also beyond the maneuverability capabilities of most satellites. SIGINT vulnerabilities, space junk, overcrowding, and solar flares all pose more likely threats.

Blogs of WarJohn Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002.