The most cost-effective and simplistic cyber attack in outer space with the intent to bring down a targeted space asset is likely to use space junk that still has fuel and respond to communications – and use them to ram or force targeted space assets out of orbit. The benefits for the attacker – hard to attribute, low costs, and if the attacker has no use of the space terrain then benefit from anti-access/area denial through space debris created by a collision.
The life span of a satellite is between five and 30 years, and even afterward it can still be orbiting with enough propellant to move through space and with functional communications which could be reactivated. Space contains thousands of satellites, both active and inactive, launched by numerous organizations and countries, hosting 5,000+ space-borne transponders communicating with Earth. Every transmission is a potential inlet for a cyber attack. Older satellites share technological similarities, providing opportunities to cyber-exploit industrial systems for control and processing. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems within our municipalities, facilities, infrastructure, and factories are designed and built on older technology and hardware, sometimes designed decades ago, and the software is seldom updated. These SCADA systems are considered a strategic vulnerability and have drawn growing attention from the US cyberdefense and homeland security communities in recent years as critical infrastructure is now a top priority. The lack of up to date security features within utilities and other critical infrastructure is mirrored in outer space. Satellites may be based on hardware and technology from the 1980/1990s for one straightforward reason—they are unlikely to be upgraded after they have been launched into space.
Terrestrial cyber attacks are a single exploit on thousands, if not millions, of identical systems, and the exploit will be eliminated afterward by updates or upgrades. The difference between satellites and terrestrial cyber exploits is that a satellite is in many cases custom made or in relatively small series, whereas the computing design is proprietary. Cyber attacks in space exploit a single system, or a limited group of systems, within a larger group of satellites. These spaceborne assets have a variety of operating systems, embedded software, and designs from disparate technological legacies. As more nations engage in launching satellites with a variety of technical sophistication, the risk for hijacking and manipulation through covert activity increases. A satellite’s onboard computer (OBC) can allow reconfiguration and software updates, which increase its vulnerability to cyber attacks. A vulnerable satellite that will be orbiting for the next ten years can be preset by a cyber perpetrator for unauthorized usage when needed.
Even with the most-advanced digital forensics tools, tracing a cyber attack is complicated on terrestrial computer systems, which are physically accessible. Space-borne systems do not allow physical access, thus, lack of access to the computer system nullifies several options for forensic evidence gathering. The only trace from the perpetrator is the actual transmissions and wireless attempts to penetrate the system. If these transmissions are not captured, the trace is lost.
If the adversary is skilled, it is more likely the attribution investigation will end with a set of spoofed innocent actors whose digital identities have been exploited in the attack rather than attribution to the real perpetrator. A strong suspicion would impact interstate relations, but full attribution and traceability are needed to create a case for reprisal and retaliation. Attribution can be graduated, and the level varies as to what would be accepted as an “attributed” attack. The national leadership can accept a lower level of tangible attribution, based on earlier intelligence reports and adversarial modus operandi than the international community might demand, but it is restrained in taking action. China has had a growing interest in building cyber warfare capabilities and is one of several nations that would have a sincere interest in degrading US space assets. Currently, nation-states are restrained by the political and economic repercussions of an attributed attack, but covert cyber war targeting US space assets removes the restraint of attribution.
A cyber attack resulting in a space collision would lack attribution and thus would be attractive to our covert adversaries. A collision between a suddenly moving foreign satellite and a mission-critical US satellite is neither a coincidence nor an accident. Even if there is no collision, a satellite on a potential collision course would force the targeted satellite to move and adjust position – and could eventually run out of fuel – and during these adjustments have degraded service levels.
However, without attribution, it does not matter that this is so obvious. Other forms of direct and indirect attack would be traceable to an attacker, which could result in military, economic, and political repercussions. In criminology, we know that the major consideration of a perpetrator for premeditated acts is the risk of getting caught. The size of any repercussions if caught is secondary. If a cyber attack can destroy or disable US satellites with no attribution or traceability, it is likely to be considered by those who are openly adversaries and certainly by those who are covert. From a cyber warfare perspective, this creates an opportunity for a third party to hack and hijack a satellite with the express purpose of colliding with a mission-critical US satellite.
The attack could be either a direct collision or an indirect attack using the debris cloud from another collision. The hijacked ramming satellite can come from any country or international organization. The easiest way to perpetuate this attack would be to hijack satellites from countries less technically advanced or from less-protected or outdated systems.
Post-mission disposal (PMD), the UN-initiated international effort to remove satellites after their productive life spans, would require satellites to be removed from space within 25 years after their mission ends. Naturally, it could happen earlier than 25 years, but it can also be a drawn-out process, as there are currently no tangible sanctions for noncompliance. If a satellite has a lifespan of 10–20 years, the additional 25-year allowance would increase the total number of years when the satellite can be remotely commanded to 35–45 years. Satellites launched in 1977, 1987, and 1997 are already technically outdated and several technology generations behind. The time between launch and end of the operation for a satellite is the foundation for its cyber vulnerability. It is a sound financial decision to use a satellite to the full extent of its lifespan. However, the question becomes Is it worth the risks? We must keep in mind technical leaps made since early space launches and what vulnerabilities could be embedded when space is populated by 25- to 45-year-old assets that can still navigate. Since technology today develops so quickly, PMD, in reality, increases the risk of cyber attack by hijacked satellites because it prolongs the time a satellite can be remotely commanded by radio signals exploiting obsolete and outdated communication equipment.
In a future near-peer conflict, one of the potential adversary’s goals is early in a conflict separate the Joint Force in spaces, time, and functions (TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1). Cyber attacks in outer space are no longer science fiction; it is a valid concern.
Jan Kallberg, PhD