Rolf Skatteboe was surprised — to say the least—by news reports last October that hackers had used the Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) ground station in Svalbard, Norway, to send unauthorized signals to a pair of NASA Earth observation satellites. The reports were based on a draft of the annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that had leaked to media outlets.
Although NASA did confirm there were attempts to tamper with the Landsat 7 and Terra satellites, Skatteboe said there is no evidence that the bogus signals were uplinked from the commercially operated KSAT ground system. KSAT protested to the commission, and all references to Svalbard were omitted from its final report, which was released in November.
KSAT, created in 2002 as a 50-50 joint venture between the Kongsberg Group industrial conglomerate and the Norwegian space agency, has enjoyed double-digit revenue growth over the last several years driven primarily by the proliferation of both government and commercial Earth observation satellites. The company provides satellite uplink and downlink and launch support services from a network that includes three polar facilities — two in Norway, one in Antarctica — and four midlatitude stations. Smaller, but showing promise, is KSAT’s applications business, which combines satellite radar imagerywith automatic identification services (AIS) ship location data for maritime situational awareness and oil spill monitoring.
Skatteboe spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
What is your annual revenue and what’s the trend there?
The growth since 2002 has been around 15 percent annually.We started out at about $8 million per year with 40 employees and now we’re about $70 million with 125 employees.
What about the next five years?
We expect the same growth rate.
What’s going to drive that for you?
First there are an increasing number of polar-orbiting satellites being launched.
So just counting the number of satellites and the need for ground station services is one driver. And it’s a trend for some of the commercial providers to outsource ground station activity because they will focus on core business or can’t afford to build their own ground stations. The other part is the monitoring services — oil spill detection, monitoring of coastal areas — which has been hampered by lack of satellites. But there recently has been an increase in the number of radar satellites that will help improve the coverage.
Between your ground station services and applications businesses, which is bigger?
The first one is bigger. It now is about 75 percent of the overall business. The biggest clients right now on the ground station side would be different government organizations that own and operate satellites: NASA; the European Space Agency; we haveapretty big involvement with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and a large activity with the Indian Space Research Organisation. Then there is an emerging market of commercial customers that own one or two or three satellites.
Who are your clients on the applications side?
The service side is primarily oil companies and government institutions responsible for coastal monitoring. Typically we do jobs for the oil companies to document their activities so that they can prove that they didn’t spill, then we do a job for governments that want to make sure that nobody is spilling and if there is a spill they can find out who did it. Typically, a combination of radar imagery with AIS information makes it possible to positively identify the source of an oil spill and then we notify the different governments.
Which is the fastest-growing part of your business?
Until now, commercial remote sensing has been the largest and the fastest-growing market but we see a new trend in other areas, for ice forecasting and ship routing to the north and to the east as the polar ice melts. Ship owners will start sending their cargo ships north of Russia or north of Canada rather than going around Africa. In addition to that, there will be growing oil exploration activities in those areas, so monitoring of iceberg and iceberg drifts is of importance.
You occasionally compete with radar satellite operators who not only are clients but also data suppliers. How does that work?
KSAT has one big advantage and that’s that we’re independent of the data source. If you own one satellite, you tend to use only that satellite and the end users, for example the oil companies, really don’t care what satellites you’re using.
They want to have continuous coverage.
But do you always get full cooperation from radar satellite operators?
There are certain challenges in some areas. But in some other markets there is good cooperation. We believe that the product will prevail.
What is the status of your network of midlatitude ground stations?
There are four stations: Dubai, Singapore, South Africa and Mauritius. Right now there are not any plans to expand per se, but if the customer base increases in a certain area, we will expand it.
What about your polar network?
We won the contract to build the ground network for the Sentinels, the European Space Agency’s next generation of Earth observing satellites. We’re focusing on building some more polar capacity for that. The prime station will be at Svalbard and we’re considering additional capacity if needed. The analysis is just going on.
Would this be additional capacity co-located at existing sites or at alternative sites?
There could be an alternative site.
Are there any candidate locations that you can tell me about right now?
You’re on the right side of the globe.
What was your initial reaction to the draft U.S. report saying KSAT’s Svalbard station was used to transmit unauthorized signals to a pair of NASA satellites?
We were really surprised because we knew that we had very good security on our systems and did not have any indications at all of interference from harmful outside sources. So we were really surprised that that could happen and there was nothing in the KSAT system that was physically connected to the secure systems that NASA’s using for their satellite communications. So there was physically no way that a KSAT system could cause interference on the NASA system.
Can you be more specific?
In the report it said that KSAT’s IT system was used to interfere with NASA satellites.
That’s not possible, because the systems aren’t connected. NASA has its own network that Svalbard is a part of, and that connects only the NASA activities in the U.S. and Svalbard in a dedicated closed line. So the other KSAT systems cannot talk to that network.
Is it possible that the bogus signals were sent via the dedicated NASA antenna at Svalbard?
That could be the case. It’s also possible that somebody was trying to use an antenna from somebody else to communicate with the satellite without interfering with NASA’s or KSAT’s systems.
How did you get the commission to modify its report?
We wrote them a letter and told them it was technically not possible to use KSAT systems to produce such an interference and we asked them to remove the reference because it wasn’t substantiated. They were very accommodating in that respect.
Have you nonetheless taken steps to beef up security at Svalbard in the wake of the report?
No, we have an ongoing review cycle on all of our systems and they are up to date and state of the art. But we did do analysis to make sure we didn’t have any loopholes.
Did you get a lot of inquiries from concerned customers when the initial media reports came out?
We had a lot of media, and a lot of concerns from customers, but the customers have come to know us over the years so they took it very easy when we told them about the systems, and explained to them what I just explained to you.