Cyber Attacks in Space

Satellites can be harmed today by a variety of methods, including by harming computer systems linked to them. Satellite layouts must therefore be made more resilient against cybernetic threats

The cyber realm in general and cyber warfare in particular have gained a position of prominence in public-defense discourse in recent years. They are often linked to nearly every field of activity, whether a connection exists or whether such a connection is very feeble indeed. One of the fields regarding which this linkage is made often is space – where the connection between cyber terrorism threats and actual damage to space-borne assets is very direct.

In recent years, it has become clear to anyone involved in this field that space-borne assets can be damaged in various ways, including the option of inflicting damage on the computers that command the satellites, and not necessarily on the computers onboard the satellite. Cyber attacks may be staged against the ground station controlling the satellite and dictating its operation, thereby damaging the system located in space, hundreds or thousands of kilometers above the earth.

A system-wide vulnerability may be identified here, and the ground control stations may be damaged in various ways. At this point, and in all probability in the foreseeable future as well, only the superpowers possess the ability to inflict serious damage on satellites. So far, only three states have demonstrated the ability to physically damage satellites by intercepting them: Russia, the US and China.

In order to overcome cyber attacks against satellites – and the more satellites a country operates, the greater the potential damage an attack can inflict – it should be understood that the damage inflicted by a cyber attack is not confined to the results of information and data having been stolen. It can have a physical manifestation, namely the damage inflicted on the satellite can be real, up to complete destruction. A scenario may be described where a state or a non-state organization dominates a satellite control channel and causes the satellite to activate its maneuvering engines in a way that would cause it to lose altitude and burn off upon reaching the atmosphere.

The damage can also have an ‘awareness’ effect, namely someone gaining access to a satellite control channel and executing some harmless operations merely to demonstrate their ability (US spokespersons have attributed such incidents to the Chinese, who had staged a cyber attack against a Norwegian ground station out of which NASA satellites were controlled).

Every satellite operating in space relies on communication with the ground (or with a naval or aerial platform). This communication may also be disrupted in order to interrupt the normal functioning of the satellite. Using the cyber attack option, satellite operation may be interrupted by attacking the electrical power infrastructure supplying power to the ground section of space-borne systems.

Another way to attack satellites (as well as other products) is by inserting fake components into the system so that it will contain a hostile element, while the satellite operators remain unaware of this fact (this opens a ‘back door’ through which the perpetrator can access the system and perform various operations therein). In the US, the authorities found thousands of fake components (mainly chips) intended for installation in the next generation of US navigation satellites.

Attacks against satellites are lucrative to states and other players, as in many cases the source of the attack is very difficult to trace. On the other hand, the databases containing information about the orbits of communication satellites or satellites in even lower orbits are not classified, and any smartphone user can view the positions of those satellites on the display screen of his smartphone, with the display updated at 30-second intervals. As the locations of satellites and the frequency ranges they use cannot be concealed, a greater emphasis should be placed on the physical protection of ground control stations (and on concealing the backup stations), as well as on preventing the leakage of information from the satellite manufacturers.

In order to defend against cyber attacks on satellites, awareness must be heightened among members of the space community, developers and consumers. Furthermore, tests must be added for immunity to such attacks as an integral part of the tests satellites undergo during the manufacturing process, before being launched into space. The aforementioned measures should complement the introduction of diversified protective elements, on board the satellites as well as in the ground stations controlling them.

The employment of multiple satellites will enable redundancy in the event of a cyber attack. A costly but feasible recovery concept can include the use of launching by demand, using standby satellites and a launcher that may be readied for launching at short notice. This concept was theoretically developed in the US primarily, but it has not yet been implemented. Moreover, methods for managing the satellite layout intelligently and backup provided to the ground control stations will contribute to the reinforcement and strengthening of the satellite layout against various types of cyber threats.

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