By Group Captain Arvind Pandey (Retd)
In this era of space warfare, the objects in space must be resilient and robust for any deliberate action which may render spacecraft useless. These actions might be in the form of cyber attacks, kinetic and non-kinetic attacks, and direct action attacks.
Space warfare is inevitable, and the space ecosystem has to be in preparedness at all times.
In a capability demonstrator during an annual event on cybersecurity for the space industry, the European Space Agency (ESA) issued a challenge to cybersecurity professionals in the space industry ecosystem to interfere with the operation of the ESAs “OPS-SAT” demonstration nanosatellite.
In this challenge, the system that controls the payload’s GPS, altitude control system, and onboard imaging sensor was to be taken over by cybersecurity professionals using a range of ethical hacking tactics.
The aim was to understand how unauthorized access to these systems may result in losing control over the satellite’s mission or significant damage to the satellite.
What Went Through The Challenge
This special exercise, which highlights the demand for a high degree of cyber resilience in the extremely particular operational environment of space, was carried out by Thales’ offensive cybersecurity team in collaboration with the Group’s Information Technology Security Evaluation Facility.
The four cybersecurity experts from Thales gained access to the satellite’s onboard system, took control of its application environment using conventional access permissions, and then utilized several flaws to implant malicious code into the satellite’s systems.
This allowed for other goals, including obscuring certain geographic regions in the satellite imaging while disguising their operations to avoid being discovered by ESA.
This made it possible to jeopardize the data transmitted back to Earth, especially by altering the images taken by the satellite’s imaging sensor.
The exercise was planned primarily to assist in evaluating the effects and repercussions of a true cyberattack on space systems. During the exercise, ESA had access to the satellite’s systems to maintain command and guarantee a return to normal.
Cyber Security Challenges And Solutions
Since its inception, space technology has been developed with both military and non-military applications in mind. The difficulties in this situation are to:
• Achieve mission continuity by safeguarding all space assets.
• Ensure system resilience in space regardless of any cyber vulnerabilities.
• Identify and address any threats that may come from the ground or the space.
• Adhere to all certifications, laws, and standards for space security.
Cybersecurity issues demand appropriate responses for a secure environment, including a secure satellite control center, mission control center, and IT infrastructure, depending on spacecraft usage. These satellites are extremely complex. Thus, several manufacturers work together to create each component.
The satellites’ launch into orbit is a challenging operation that involves several businesses. The firms that own the satellites frequently contract their day-to-day administration to other businesses even after they are in orbit. The vulnerabilities grow when there are more vendors since there are more ways for hackers to access the system.
A History Of Hacks
This scenario came to the limelight when hackers gained control of the American-German ROSAT X-Ray satellite in 1998. They accomplished their goal by breaking into computers at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland. The hackers then gave the satellite the order to point its solar panels squarely at the sun.
Its batteries were effectively destroyed by this, rendering the satellite inoperable. In 2011, the defunct satellite ultimately returned to Earth. Satellites may also be held captive by hackers for a ransom, like what happened in 1999 when hackers took over the UK’s SkyNet satellites.
The risk of cyberattacks on satellites has increased over time. Two NASA satellites were purportedly fully controlled by hackers in 2008, probably from China, for two minutes on one and nine minutes on the other.
Another group of state-sponsored hackers from China apparently ran a sophisticated cyber operation against satellite operators and defense contractors in 2018. Iranian hacker organizations have also tried similar assaults.
Various anti-satellite weapons, including missiles, lasers, microwaves, and space robots, have been created, but they are expensive, only available to a few countries, easily traceable, and likely to produce debris that poses a hazard to all space users.
In contrast, many nations can afford cyber weapons, which are equally difficult to track.
China has built a new cyber defense infrastructure that can automatically detect security weaknesses in orbiting satellites. Also, US Space Force has established Space Delta 6, a space cyber combat brigade.
Some analysts predict that the number of satellites in orbit will double in the upcoming years, with many offering commercial services like communication and the Internet. As a result, there is an urgent need for regulatory structures to preserve order in space.
- Group Captain Arvind Pandey(Retd) is a geospatial intelligence professional. He is trained in the full spectrum of imagery analysis in aerial and space-borne sensors and has vast experience creating geospatial infrastructure.
- Reach out to the author at arvind.pandey65 (at) outlook.com
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