Protecting Space with a Bold Cybersecurity Portfolio and Strategy

January 18, 2019 Updated: January 28, 2019


Despite recent attempts to characterize the landscape of space threats as something unique to the current administration and president, or to set this up as a battle between the president and asteroids, there remain myriad reasons for being concerned about protecting space and about the cybersecurity-related threats and challenges associated with it.

As an example, with the advent of small satellites and “constellations” of them, the number of active satellites patrolling the Earth at various altitudes will increase to nearly 20,000 in the next decade from about 1,900.

This nearly 10-fold increase in machinery orbiting the Earth brings with it a number of cybersecurity-related challenges. The first is related to “space junk.”

Space Junk

All those wonderful satellites launched by U.S. civil, defense, and now, increasingly, commercial interests leave behind a trail of “space junk,” either when they outlive their expected lifetimes or operations capacities, or by other less-conventional means (orbital interference, as an example).

Satellites operate at different altitudes—for example, the low Earth orbit, or LEO, operates from 100 to 1,240 miles above the Earth. Using different orbits and altitudes has long been a method for avoiding collisions, but it doesn’t completely prevent them. Coordination between satellite providers is necessary to avoid collisions. Of course, that coordination will be impacted by 10-fold growth in the number of orbiting satellites.

Precautions must be taken to ensure that the sheer increase in the number of satellite assets doesn’t form a “shield” that would prevent critical observations and measurements due to limited space.

Normally, operational conflict avoidance is done by analysts with computer assistance in one to two days, but given the increase in satellite constellations in the future, civil, defense, and commercial providers are looking to use artificial intelligence (AI) and other automation techniques to enhance their ability to deal with the increase in management required for the new volume of assets.

The Trump administration’s movement of the space traffic management operations to the Commerce Department is also seen as a policy that will make space asset management easier. Government contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, look to build capabilities to enhance space asset tracking and management, including the “Space Fence” project being constructed for the U.S. Air Force to track space objects.

Cyber Threats

Being good stewards of space junk amid the new, voluminous playing field of space assets in the coming decade also places heavy concern on our physical satellite infrastructure, both in space and on the ground, and the cyber threats that challenge it.

For example, there are more than 700 “teleports,” or ground stations, around the world that manage ground-to-space communication. Many of those stations can be hacked, even if they are “air-gapped” and disconnected from the network—in fact, in some cases, this just makes the hacking even more appealing to cybercriminals because it requires some social engineering or physical compromise at the facility or with someone related to it. Power stations and backup power for these facilities is also another challenge.

There has been growing concern about jamming technology that can interfere with ground-to-space communications. According to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Aerospace Security Project, “The technology needed to jam many types of satellite signals is commercially available and relatively inexpensive.” 

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other Department of Defense (DOD) agencies look to fund projects that enable optical ground-to-space communication as a way to combat the typical radio frequency (RF) jamming the CSIS report discussed.

Optical communication has the advantage of being relatively new and less widespread in use than RF communication, and as such presents a security advantage because it is not existing and known infrastructure.

Jamming and Communication

In response to concerns about our foreign adversaries jamming satellite communications, a DOD project called the Tactical Line-of-sight Optical Communications Network, or TALON, was able to use optical communication to transmit data up to 45 miles. The technology appears promising and commensurate with the existing state-of-the-art communications.

Others, including a former general counsel for the National Security Agency and assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, suggest the United States should go beyond passive cybersecurity protection and should move to active cybersecurity thwarting and countering.

The concern about space jamming is likely why the Defense Science Board and the Trump administration’s national defense strategy has identified jamming as a key priority for investment and solution generation for the government.

Besides China, there is growing concern about Russians and their jamming capabilities. According to the Secure World Foundation, Russians already have space jamming capabilities and are poised to use them.

American citizens are likely to question the severity and likelihood of an attack, since they aren’t regularly reported. This is due to the fact that the attacks themselves would likely be classified, as they indicate national security threats and risks, and would not be directly shared with the public.

The Air Force is looking at an end-to-end approach to secure space communications. It already has the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system, but it is only for the nation’s most secure communications likely related to nuclear and other sensitive areas.

Since AEHF isn’t widely available in the government and costly, a new project called Protected Anti-jam Tactical Satcom (PATS) is underway and focused on three phases: user terminals, ground stations (“teleports”), and satellites. The goal of PATS is to directly provide AEHF-type secure communications, but make them widely available to less-secure government satellite projects, and also to commercial vendors that require more secure communications, at a fraction of the cost of a AEHF system.

PATS users will be able to dynamically select the best and most secure network options using modem-like switch technology, and the communications will use waveform processing both on the ground and on board the satellite.

Space Force

Unclear from the current legislative times is how and where the diverse space-cybersecurity management will be implemented. The president has requested the inception of a “Space Force” as a new branch of the military and has taken steps toward that action. However, given the congressional turnover in 2018 and the existing lukewarm reception to the Space Force proposal from legislators, the next steps are murky.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a recent statement that he is concerned that Trump’s proposal “would create additional costly military bureaucracy at a time when we have limited resources for defense and critical domestic priorities, and I do not believe it is the best way to advance U.S. national security.”

However, Dean Cheng, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, believes the Space Force is a necessary step in rearranging the management of space threats under the military akin to the Army Air Force realignment in 1947.

Given our war game simulations over the past 20 years that include space threats, and also the current threat environment, which includes the sitting U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warning that Russia and China will have anti-satellite weapons in the next few years, the government should pursue a swift decision-making process associated with management of cyber-related threats in the space-to-ground environment.

Chris Mattmann is a principal data scientist and associate chief technology and innovation officer in the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.