Complex Made Simple

New age space invaders: Stalking the cosmos

The wealthiest of the wealthy are at the mercy of cybercriminals who can sabotage billion-dollar space and ground installations using simple, inexpensive technology, putting everyone at risk, not just rocket men and women

Communication satellites are already being targeted Many space systems are old, created before cybersecurity became a top policy priority Hackers could also hold satellites for ransom, as happened in 1999

Virgin Galactic took Richard Branson past the edge of space, roughly 86 km up with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos following up with a similar journey on board the Shepard Rocket.

Welcome to the dawn of a new space age where sightseers become astronauts, well, at least for well-to-do tourists.

Companies including SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures want to make space tourism more common.

But, even the wealthiest of the wealthy are at the mercy of cybercriminals who can sabotage billion-dollar space and ground installations using simple, inexpensive technology, putting everyone at risk, not just rocket men and women. 

Space and ground infrastructure

A new Kaspersky and Zayed University report titled, ‘Cyber threat profile of space infrastructure,’ looks at cybersecurity aspects of space travel. 

More and more countries are entering space, most recently the UAE with its Hope mission.    

“Space travel is no longer of interest to only governments but it is now becoming increasingly popular among private companies aiming to bring space to everyone,” said Monther Aldwairi, Chair of Computing and Applied Technology Department at Zayed University.

Space infrastructure encompasses mission-critical systems such as rockets, orbital stations, satellites, unmanned air systems, space probes, robotics, and space-to-earth communications systems.  

Just like any critical infrastructure environment, space infrastructure often incorporates a traditional user segment, with a corporate network that hosts e-mail services, e-services, and file servers.

There will also be the field, or space, segment, where space probes, sensors, actuators, satellites, or similar systems are collecting data from the physical environment. 

Space infrastructure has multiple entry points: corporate networks or the user segment, satellite communication stations, orbiting satellites, and any system that connects to the space network to use its services. In the near future, as early as late 2022, the entry points could increase further to include LTE/4G towers on the moon’s surface.

Cyber attacking space

Communication satellites are already being targeted and countries are believed to be forming units dedicated to protecting space infrastructure, such as the US Space Force.

“Traditional critical infrastructure has been compromised repeatedly in recent years, with often serious consequences. Humans must make cybersecurity a priority from the outset as they expand into space,” said Maher Yamout, Senior Security Researcher at Kaspersky.

The dramatic increase in space travel is going to continue, shaped by the following factors:

  • Space tourism will become common and hotels will start to be built in space.
  • Rocket-propelled planes will enable humans to travel at speeds of up to 27,000 km/h.
  • Robots will begin to play the role of astronauts, especially in deep space.
  • Human colonies will be established on different planets.
  • The mining industry will begin to operate in space.

Satellites are sitting ducks

Essential systems such as communications, air transport, maritime trade, financial services, weather monitoring, and defense — all rely heavily on space infrastructure, including satellites, ground stations, and data links at the national, regional, and international levels.

Many space systems are old, created before cybersecurity became a top policy priority.  

Take GPS, a technology whose precision is often taken for granted. All it takes is the production of a relatively inexpensive spoofer, and an attacker is able to command and control the uplink signal to a satellite. If the downlink from a satellite is spoofed, false data can be injected into a target’s communications systems, fooling the GPS into calculating an incorrect position.

Satellites have the potential to revolutionize many aspects of everyday life, from bringing internet access to remote corners of the globe to monitoring the environment and improving global navigation systems.

But hackers could simply shut satellites down, denying access to their services. Hackers could also jam or spoof the signals from satellites, creating havoc for critical infrastructure. This includes electric grids, water networks, and transportation systems.

Some of these new satellites have thrusters that allow them to speed up, slow down and change direction in space. If hackers took control of these steerable satellites, they could alter the satellites’ orbits and crash them into other satellites or even the International Space Station.

Makers of these satellites, particularly small CubeSats, use off-the-shelf technology to keep costs low. The wide availability of these components means hackers can analyze them for vulnerabilities. In addition, many of the components draw on open-source technology. The danger here is that hackers could insert back doors and other vulnerabilities into satellites’ software.

A history of hacks

As early as 1998, hackers took control of the U.S.-German ROSAT X-Ray satellite by hacking into computers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The hackers then instructed the satellite to aim its solar panels directly at the sun. This effectively fried its batteries and rendered the satellite useless.  

Hackers could also hold satellites for ransom, as happened in 1999 when hackers took control of the U.K.‘s SkyNet satellites.

Over the years, the threat of cyberattacks on satellites has gotten more dire. In 2008, hackers reportedly took full control of two NASA satellites, one for about two minutes and the other for about nine minutes. In 2018, hackers reportedly launched a sophisticated hacking campaign aimed at satellite operators and defense contractors.  

There are currently no cybersecurity standards for satellites and no governing body to regulate and ensure their cybersecurity. Even if common standards could be developed, there are no mechanisms in place to enforce them. This means responsibility for satellite cybersecurity falls to the individual companies that build and operate them.

The costs associated with guaranteeing the security of each component could be prohibitive. This problem is even more acute for low-cost space missions, where the cost of ensuring cybersecurity could exceed the cost of the satellite itself.