Protecting Space Satellites

Chris Swagler | March 25th, 2024


With the digital age advancing, satellites become essential components of the modern world, orchestrating navigation, communication, and commerce. However, the calm celestial sentinels face a hidden threat, cyberattack. Malicious attacks, if left unchecked, have the potential to destabilize our interconnected world, risking our security economy. Satellites have evolved into sophisticated, versatile platforms since Sputnik was launched in 1957, playing an important role in global communication and security. Satellites are now used for everyday comforts, including the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Internet access, and international defense and environmental monitoring. Which makes them ideal targets for cyberattacks. Recent cyberattacks, including the 2022 attack on the Viasat KA-SAT network, have acted as a reminder of the satellite infrastructure’s riding vulnerability and the importance of having strong cybersecurity when protecting space satellites.

The disruptive attack, which disrupted Internet connectivity for thousands across Europe, demonstrated the strategic importance of satellites as critical targets for cyber adversaries. These aren’t isolated incidents; rather, they represent an escalating trend as sophisticated cyber threat actors become more aware of the potential for catastrophic disruption through satellite-based attacks. Immediate robust satellite cybersecurity is a must in the future. Immediate action is needed to avoid an all-too-common situation in which key services are rendered inoperable, with far-reaching and devastating effects. The satellite’s communication protocols were overpowered by Russian state actors responsible for the 2022 Viasat KA-SAT attack. The attack resulted in widespread Internet outages and disruptions in remote sensing services across Ukraine and other parts of Europe, affecting over 9,000 subscribers in France and nearly 13,000 subscribers in other European countries, and causing a large German energy company to lose remote access to over 5,800 wind turbines. The incident triggered an international appeal from the European Parliament for stronger cybersecurity measures in space technology, emphasizing the importance of increased cyber-resilience in response to the obstacles encountered during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The 2022 breach into SpaceX’s Starlink terminals demonstrated the sophistication of cyberattacks on satellite systems. Threat operators exploited a vulnerability in the satellites’ communication system, highlighting the need for stronger encryption and more secure software. Even though SpaceX quickly addressed the vulnerability in its system, the incident demonstrated the potential of more sophisticated attacks disrupting critical infrastructure and future services. The satellite systems’ susceptibility to cyberattacks is no longer a theory. The incidents, along with others tracked by organizations, including the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) and the CyberPeace Institute, demonstrate the increasing threat presented by cyber adversaries targeting satellite systems. According to an ENISA analysis, the number of attacks has increased by 300% over the last five years, with a specific focus on interrupting key satellite-based communication systems.

Cybersecurity professionals, including those from NASA and the European Space Agency, emphasize establishing strong encryption and secure communication protocols designed specifically for protecting space satellites. The measures are critical for protecting sensitive data and preventing unwanted access to critical satellite systems. Historical precedents, including the breach of the United States military drones in 2009, show that even the most secure systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks. The incidents highlight the importance of constant attention and proactive efforts to reduce cybersecurity threats. Critics frequently note the significant costs and technical complexities of improving satellite cybersecurity. Upgrading older satellites with new security measures or developing advanced systems for new satellites can be very costly. The cost of securing satellites is small in comparison to potential losses from massive cyberattacks. It’s about both the financial loss and keeping critical services for millions of people.

Cybersecurity technology advancements have made solutions affordable and simple to implement. One example is the United States Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently selected a set of quantum-resistant cryptographic algorithms that will provide a low-cost method of protecting satellite communications from future quantum computer threats. Furthermore, a software company, in partnership with a tech consulting company, successfully demonstrated the application of postquantum cryptography in multi orbit data communications, improving satellite transmission security. The developments are critical steps towards protecting satellite systems from sophisticated cyberattacks. Additionally, successful collaborations, including one between the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Lockheed Martin, show how proactive investment in cybersecurity can effectively protect satellites. The programs demonstrate the possibility and utility of protecting the satellite, despite concerns about cost and complexity.

The importance of protecting space satellites from cyber threats can’t be emphasized in a growing, $386-billion space economy. As people become more reliant on technology, the duty to protect them grows. Policymakers, IT leaders, and the general public must work together to prioritize and invest in satellite cybersecurity. The actions can include sponsoring research and development of new security technologies and implementing global regulations and standards for satellite cybersecurity. People can ensure that space remains a frontier of discovery and a domain of security and reliability by taking decisive action to strengthen their satellite cybersecurity. Protecting the celestial sentinels is critical to preserving the interconnected world and ensuring the continuous progression of human civilization in the digital age. The efforts in securing the satellites will protect the global infrastructure for future generations. SpearTip’s Incident Response Planning (IRP) comprehensively evaluates a client’s current IRP. If not currently in place, the Advisory Services team will draft and provide a plan that is unique to the client’s needs and operations. Our penetration testing leverages an Adversary Emulation methodology to identify and measure risks associated with the exploitation of the client’s attack surface. This emulation identifies attack paths by exploiting identified vulnerabilities and simulating real-world cyberattacks. We assess the overall risk of your security architecture by determining security maturity based on the effectiveness of current security controls and providing recommendations on how to comply with modern security frameworks. This assessment takes a more granular approach to aligning with the NIST framework. A roadmap of recommendations is provided to schedule checkpoints for you to address any gaps discovered.

If your company is experiencing a breach, call our Security Operations Center at 833.997.7327 to speak directly with an engineer.


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