Connecting the Dots | Crowded orbits pose new security threats

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Cybersecurity threats are a growing concern for day-to-day life on Earth. As thousands of satellites are launched to orbit, are there new risks to consider in the skies above?

The vast majority of smallsats crowding low Earth orbit are ill-prepared for increasingly sophisticated security threats, according to Rob Spicer, CEO of launch integration and mission management specialist TriSept.

TriSept moved into software development a couple years ago to address this, creating an operating system it plans to roll out in December to protect small and large satellites from known and emerging vulnerabilities. Spicer said hackers could theoretically seize control of a spacecraft’s propulsion system and cause mayhem in a congested LEO environment.

Just one satellite collision could be disastrous for the space industry, and the daily life it underpins on Earth, creating debris that inflates the risk of another collision in an exponential effect that could lock out vital orbits for decades.

“Satellites are just as susceptible to ransomware and cyberattacks as Colonial Pipeline was earlier this year — when nearly half of the fuel supply was disrupted across the Southeastern U.S.,” Spicer warned.

Current satellite security solutions are prohibitively expensive for smallsat business models, Spicer said.

Its TriSept Secure Embedded Linux (TSEL) software, currently in advanced lab tests and functional trials, aims to provide a low-cost solution for wider market adoption.

Spicer said TSEL is coming to the market as improving in-orbit security becomes increasingly critical for the space industry and governments worldwide.

Last year, a Pentagon competition that challenged hackers to find security bugs in a military satellite and ground system attracted more than 900 participants.

Time to focus on security

“When you consider how much life on Earth revolves around satellites in space, it’s more critical than ever to effectively secure these orbiting assets,” Spicer said.

On the flip-side, satellites are poised for bigger roles in fortifying cybersecurity by empowering next-generation solutions such as quantum encryption and blockchain technology, a decentralized system for recording and distributing digital information.

Blockchain today is perhaps best known for enabling cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which relies on a distributed ledger of transactions to make it difficult to hack or alter. Decentralized ledgers could also aid cybersecurity, supply chain management and other tasks.

Smallsat operator Spire Global said Sept. 28 it will demonstrate technology in orbit for SpaceChain, a company focused on space applications for blockchain technology.

SpaceChain’s software will be uploaded to a Spire satellite under a partnership that aims to “maximize data security and increase the resiliency of computing operations.”

Spire said it does not share information around practices for protecting its own satellites from hacks for security reasons. “Spire has created a resilient and fully integrated satellite, ground station, and cloud-based operations platform to enable secure and efficient data collection from space,” a Spire official said.

Smallsat operator Planet said it takes a “layered defense” approach for ensuring that only it may contact and control its constellation. “These measures include end-to-end encryption for all spacecraft communication, hardware-backed encryption key management, mandatory access control, network partitioning and isolation, as well as hardware multi-factor authentication,” a Planet official said.

“On top of these and related controls, we view our approach to spacecraft hardware and software as an advantage to the security of our overall system. Our proprietary technology in the chain of communication from ground to space is differentiated and purpose built with security in mind, increasing the defensibility of the system.”

Planet is a member of the Space ISAC information gathering alliance to share specific threat intelligence, and tracks public developments and technical trends in adjacent industries, including the rise of software supply chain attacks.

“This landscape of information informs our security practices, which we implement with our existing spacecraft and factor into refresh launches and future designs,” the official added.

Northern Sky Research analyst Hussain Bokhari said “security is a prime component for both ground segment and satellites at the moment,” pointing to the satellites in development that are leveraging quantum computing to protect communications networks.

“In the current state of the market, players are aiming to prove technology via the traditional means of building an ecosystem with key players and user segments, overall it looks like quantum in combination with other segments has the aim to enhance the level of security through software-defined approach and making breaches harder along the way,” Bokhari said.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.