WASHINGTON — The Space ISAC, an industry group dedicated to space cybersecurity, is trying to spread awareness of the dangers satellites face, not just from cyberattacks, but also from potential anti-satellite weapons and severe space weather.

The nonprofit Space ISAC (Information Sharing and Analysis Center) held a conference Oct. 17 in Colorado Springs to highlight the value of satellites as crucial infrastructure that forms the backbone of the modern digital economy and enables services critical for everyday life. 

In a speech at the conference, Frank Backes, senior vice president of Kratos Space Federal and a member of the Space ISAC board, said commercial and government satellite operators need to implement safeguards and defenses to ensure satellites can continue delivering critical communications, observation, and navigation capabilities in the face of rapidly evolving risks in the space domain.

Backes is leaving his Kratos post and will be taking over next week as CEO of Capella Space, a radar imaging satellite operator. 

He said cybersecurity vulnerabilities, Russian satellites stalking other nations’ assets in space, and severe weather events are the top concerns for ISAC members. 

As nations become more dependent on satellites, any disruptions to their services could have significant ripple effects on Earth, said Backes. 

A key accomplishment of the Space ISAC this past year was the establishment of a “watch center” facility to monitor, analyze, and respond to threats to space systems in real time. The center is co-located at the National Cybersecurity Center in Colorado Springs.

“This helps our ability to communicate internationally, commercially, with our federal government, about threats against space systems,” Backes said.

The conflict in Ukraine has served as a major wake-up call regarding the cyber threat to satellites, he said. And the effects of attacks on space critical infrastructure were not limited to just the country of Ukraine. 

A cyberattack in February 2022 against Viasat’s KA-SAT network disrupted broadband satellite internet access across Europe, Backes said. “That network was also being used by Germany to control all of their wind farm infrastructure. And so when that attack occurred, the command and control of that wind farm went offline,” he added. “That entire power grid was impacted.”

Russian stalking satellites

Most recently, in early October, the Space ISAC watch center tracked the activities of Russia’s Luch Olymp K-2 geostationary spy satellite.

“Every time that satellite moves in the geostationary belt, it is traversing the geo belt specifically to impact and gather information about the commercial satellite communications infrastructure,” Backes said. “It has nestled up against and near satellites from Inmarsat. Intelsat, SES and others in an effort to disrupt and affect the commercial communications infrastructure.”

Analysts at the watch center also track space weather events that routinely affect satellites such as solar flares that can disrupt electronics, clouds of solar plasma that can damage satellites and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field.

A rather unusual threat emerged this year, known as the South Atlantic Anomaly. “That’s one of the events that we’re also tracking because of its impact on low Earth orbit satellites,” Backes said. 

The anomaly was identified in the Earth’s magnetic field over the South Atlantic region. Scientists described it as a weak spot in the Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from high doses of solar wind and cosmic radiation. This anomaly can cause disturbances in orbiting satellites. 

“Just about every LEO satellite can be affected when flying through that particular area, because you have very high energy particles,” said Backes.

Push to designate space sector as ‘critical infrastructure’ 

The Space ISAC is leading an effort to have the U.S. government designate space systems as the 17th U.S. critical infrastructure sector.

“I think it’s overdue. I think it should have been done yesterday,” Samuel Visner, technical fellow at Aerospace Corp. and vice chairman of the board of Space ISAC, said at the conference. 

Supporters of this move argue that critical infrastructure designation would ensure emergency federal funding in the event of a major disruption of critical services and more consistent access to federal government decision-making processes.

“This discussion is underway right now in Washington,” said Visner. The Biden administration is reviewing options under Presidential Policy Directive 21

The proposal to designate space as critical infrastructure has been criticized by some industry sectors that worry it will bring about more regulatory burdens. 

“There are people who fear that this is a regulatory move,” said Visner. But he pushed back on that criticism. “Many industries are regulated, but not because they’ve been designated as critical infrastructure sectors,” he said. 

A decision needs to be made soon, Visner said. “While we are trying to figure out if we’re going to make that designation, our adversaries Russia and China have also decided that our space systems are critical infrastructure, they’re treating it that way, and building and demonstrating the capability to attack it.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...