To protect against cyber attacks in space, researchers are asking, “What if?”

If space systems like GPS were hacked and taken offline, much of the world would immediately revert to the communications and navigation technologies of the 1950s. Yet space cybersecurity has remained largely invisible to the public at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions.

Cyberattacks on satellites have been happening since the 1980s, but the global alarm was only raised a few years ago. An hour before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, government operatives hacked Viasat’s satellite internet service to block communications and sow confusion in Ukraine.

I study ethics and emerging technologies and am an advisor to the US National Space Council. My colleagues and I from the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University released a US National Science Foundation-funded report on June 17, 2024, to explain the problem of cyberattacks in space and help anticipate new and surprising scenarios.

Space and you

Most people are unaware of the critical role space systems play in their daily lives, let alone military conflicts. GPS, for example, uses signals from satellites. Precise timing with GPS is essential in financial services, where every detail – such as the time of payment or withdrawal – must be precisely recorded and coordinated. Even making a mobile phone call depends on precise coordination of time in the network.

In addition to navigation for planes, boats, cars and people, GPS is also important for coordinating fleets of trucks that transport goods every day to supply local stores.

Earth observation satellites are “eyes in the sky” that provide a unique vantage point for predicting weather, monitoring environmental change, tracking and responding to natural disasters, increasing crop yields, managing land and water use, monitoring troop movements, and much more. The loss of these and other space services could be fatal for people vulnerable to natural disasters and crop failures. They could also seriously jeopardize the global economy and security.

Veel satellieten zijn van cruciaal belang voor het volgen van natuurlijke en menselijke activiteiten hier op aarde. <a href=NASA” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/″/>
Many satellites are vital for monitoring natural and human activities here on Earth. NASA

Factors that play a role

In our report, we have identified several factors that contribute to the growing threat of cyber attacks in space. For example, it is important to recognize that the world is at the beginning of a new space race.

By all accounts, space is becoming increasingly congested and contested. Both nation states and private companies, which are underregulated and now own most of the satellites in space, are preparing to compete for resources and research locations.

Because space is so remote and difficult to access, anyone who wanted to attack a space system would likely have to do so via cyberattack. Space systems are particularly attractive targets because their hardware cannot be easily upgraded after they are launched, and this uncertainty worsens over time. As complex systems, they can have long supply chains, and more links in the chain increase the potential for vulnerabilities. Large space projects are also challenged to maintain best practices over the decade or more it takes to build them.

And the stakes are unusually high in space. Space debris travels at speeds of 6 to 9 miles per second and can easily destroy a spacecraft on impact. It can also end space programs worldwide, given the supposed Kessler syndrome in which the Earth is eventually trapped in a cocoon of debris. These implications weigh in favor of cyber attacks in space over physical attacks, because the debris problem is likely to affect the attacker as well.

Furthermore, given the critical space infrastructure and services, such as GPS, conflicts in space could fuel or add fuel to conflict on Earth, even in cyberspace. For example, Russia warned in 2022 that hacking one of its satellites would be considered a declaration of war, a dramatic escalation of previous norms around warfare.

Call up scenarios

Even security professionals who recognize the seriousness of this cybersecurity threat to space face a major challenge. In unclassified forums, only a few underspecified scenarios are typically considered: something vague about satellite hacking, and something vague about signal jamming or spoofing.

But not being able to consider the full range of possibilities can be devastating to security planning, especially against hackers who are a diverse group of entities with varying motivations and goals. These variables are vital to identify, because they provide clues as to what strategies and levers defenders may find most effective in a response. For example, an attack by a state-sponsored hacker may require a different approach than, say, an attack by a criminal hacker looking for money or an agent of chaos.

To help with this piece of the security puzzle, our paper provides a taxonomy – the ICARUS Matrix – that captures these variables and can create over 4 million unique combinations of variables, which we call scenario prompts. ICARUS is an acronym for “imagining cyberattacks to anticipate risks unique to the space.”

Here are three of the 42 scenarios we included in the report.

A 3D or additive printer can be an invaluable resource for quickly creating parts on demand during space missions. A hacker could gain access to a printer on a space station and reprogram it to create small imperfections in the parts he prints. Some of these built-to-fail components could be parts of critical systems.

A hacker could corrupt data from a planetary probe to show inaccurate atmospheric, temperature, or water measurements. For example, corrupted data from a Mars rover could falsely show that an area has significant subsurface water ice. Any subsequent missions launched to explore the location would be wasted.

In 1938, a radio drama about an alien attack caused panic when many listeners failed to realize it was fiction. Similarly, a hacker could gain access to the listening feeds of the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) project and insert what appeared to be alien language into the METI transcript. They could then leak it to the media, causing worldwide panic and moving financial markets.

Other scenarios in our report cover things like insider threats, AI vulnerabilities, false flag attacks, eco-terrorism, ransomware during a launch, as well as scenarios set further into the future like asteroid mining, off-world colonies, and space pirates.

Stories for better security

Humans are hardwired to respond to stories, whether they’re shared around prehistoric campfires or via digital platforms today. So creating new and surprising scenarios can help bring the invisible threat of cyberattacks in space to life, and illuminate nuances in different scenarios that interdisciplinary experts must tackle together.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization that brings you facts and analysis to help you understand our complex world.

It is written by: Patrick Lin, University of California Polytechnic State.

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Patrick Lin receives funding from the US National Science Foundation. On space matters, he is a senior member of the US National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group and is also affiliated with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), For All Moonkind’s Institute on Space Law and Ethics, and the Aurelia Institute.

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