Hack-A-Sat: cyber battle goes orbital

Moonlighter, a satellite that hackers will compete to infiltrate in orbit, has blasted off to the International Space Station (ISS) onboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The contest, known as Hack-A-Sat, is part of the DEF CON, one of the world’s largest hacking conventions, and is jointly organized by the US Air and Space Forces.

Moonlighter is a mid-size satellite that weighs about 5 kg. It was built by the Aerospace Corporation in partnership with the US Space Systems Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Dubbed “the world’s first and only hacking sandbox in space,” it has arrived at the ISS as part of SpaceX’s 28th commercial resupply mission contracted by NASA.

Moonlighter's mission is to move cybersecurity exercises for space systems from Earth to space. Teams of hackers will try to remotely infiltrate and hijack the satellite while it's in orbit, testing both offensive and defensive techniques.

Hack-A-Sat is designed “to inspire the world’s top cybersecurity talent to develop the skills necessary to help reduce vulnerabilities and build more secure space systems,” its organizers said.

The contest has been running for four years, but this year marks the first time participants will attempt to hack a live satellite in space.

Five teams will participate in the final event, which will take place in August during the DEF CON in Las Vegas, and compete for the chance to win the top prize of $50,000.

Moonlighter runs on reprogrammable payload software that behaves like a real flight computer, according to the Aerospace Corporation.

“This allows cyber experiments to be repeatable, realistic, and secure while maintaining the health and safety of the satellite,” it said.

With this competition, the US government hopes to raise awareness of space cybersecurity and encourage innovation in the field that is increasingly targeted by disruption attempts.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year has been described as a catalyst for targeting satellite systems. The Kremlin was confirmed to be behind cyberattacks against the Viasat satellite network that caused widespread damage across Europe.

Earlier this year, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully completed its own first-ever satellite hacking exercise. It saw researchers taking control of one of its satellites orbiting the Earth during a CYSAT event in Paris.

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