Cybersecurity’s Role in Space Exploration

With the ever increasing investment in space technology around the globe, the growing number of satellites in the sky, and countries vying for the south pole of the moon thanks to chandryaan-3’s successful launch this year, we are starting to see the potential for new dangers in space exploration in the form of cyber warfare. This article delves into the escalating importance of cybersecurity in the space industry and explores the various approaches taken to address this emerging threat.

Why is Cybersecurity for Space important?

Space is an inherently harsh environment for operations. Space services used to be separated from networks on Earth, but this model has changed over the last few years, with the two systems becoming increasingly interdependent. Space-based services play an integral role in supporting critical functions like military operations, utilities, aviation, and emergency communications, rendering them vulnerable to geopolitical conflicts on Earth.

We have already seen this exact issue come into play recently with the war in Ukraine. In February 2022, just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, a large number of satellite modems in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe were subject to cyberattack and disabled, requiring global operator Viasat to do a hard-reset in order to continue communications. Experts have assessed that the attack was not designed to steal data, but simply to interfere with ground operations in Ukraine. The malware is believed to have been a new strain of wiper malware called “AcidRain” that was designed to remotely erase vulnerable modems and routers. 

Now imagine if this same attack had not just disrupted communications, but had also stolen valuable government data as well.  A major safety issue within the space sector is that the space tech is often being developed by governments alongside other government operations, is connected to weapons systems, and stores the data in the same databases. There is increasing risk that vital data will be exposed as they put more focus and investment into developing spacetech. Some researchers have even suggested that foreign countries could hack into one anothers satellites and move their positions in orbit in an attempt to permanently damage them. Not quite Star Wars, but pretty scary none-the-less.

How can we tackle this new issue?

As our knowledge of space technology has grown, the idea of keeping space systems safe through secrecy is no longer effective. Traditionally, cybersecurity efforts have mainly focused on protecting the systems on Earth (the ground segment) and haven’t paid as much attention to safeguarding the satellites themselves (the space segment). To truly protect a space system, we need to implement cybersecurity measures for both the ground and space components. This will make it much harder for cyberattacks to succeed.

 A recently published article by The Aerospace Corporation has stated that the following are fundamental for ensuring continued protections against these new forms of cyber-attacks:

Robust Cryptography Key Management: Effective key management is fundamental in ensuring the efficacy of encryption. Poor key management or key theft can render encryption useless.

Protecting the Supply Chain: Given the intricate nature of space vehicle supply chains and the growing commercialization of space, safeguarding the supply chain has become paramount.

Secure Software Development Practices: Establishing secure software development procedures is crucial in preventing design flaws, insecure logic, and coding defects that could compromise flight software.

Cyber Resilience in Satellite Design: Incorporate cyber resilience into satellite design to facilitate detection, recovery, and response mechanisms, leveraging automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

You can read their full in-depth explanation in the Aerospace Corporation’s full article Here.

On the policy side of things, we have already seen some actions towards preventing further security issues by NATO and the EU.  In 2022, NATO issued its first Space Policy to promote the secure use of and access to space and cyberspace.  This year the EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence has been presented, with the objective to strengthen the EU’s defence package and strategic compass for defence and security, and bolster more recent documents covering its defence capabilities. Noteworthy aspects of this strategy include the consideration of an EU Space Law, the establishment of an Information Sharing and Analysis Centre (ISAC), and preparations for long-term EU autonomous access to space.

While these measures and policies signal a growing commitment to safeguarding space industries from cyber threats, their effectiveness remains unproven. Only time will reveal whether these actions can adequately secure the ever-expanding frontier of space exploration.

Cyber security expert Wendy Ng, the principal cloud security architect for OneWeb, and publisher of more than 80 articles and blogs for organizations such as the Cloud Security Alliance and Deloitte UK will be speaking on a panel about cybersecurity for the space sector at Space Suppliers Summit 2024. Don’t miss the opportunity to stay informed and engaged in this critical field, sign up for Space Suppliers Summit now! You can register here:


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