Space security in 2022: expect a hacked satellite

As the number of satellites keeps growing, so does the chance of one of them getting hacked. 2022 might be the turning point.

2021 was another explosive year for the space industry. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, over 1,300 new satellites were put in orbit in only nine months of this year. That is 200 more than in the whole of 2020 and almost five times more than in 2019.

It's clear that with the advent of space commercialization, we have entered the age of a new space race. This time, geopolitical competition is supplemented by a trove of commercial companies competing to offer services relying on space assets.

With low Earth orbit (LEO), where most new satellites reside, becoming more crowded, protecting human-made moons is turning ever more critical.

I asked space security experts and industry insiders to share what's on a plate for space cyber security in 2022, and that's what they said.

Three CubeSats moments after being ejected from a small satellite deployer outside the International Space Station. Image by NASA.

Encryption fever

The majority of the new satellites in space are smallsats, devices under 500kg, with some weighing less than 10kg. That's where the industry is booming as companies like Starlink start to offer services like global internet coverage.

According to Giovanni Pandolfi Bortoletto, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Leaf Space, a microsatellite servicing company, more and more missions start to transition from capacity demonstration toward providing commercial end-to-end services.

"With this shift, the risk for possible attacks increases since the impact on commercial and government endeavors also increases with the activation of actual services," Bortoletto told CyberNews.

As companies start to internalize the threats cyberattacks pose to space assets, Bortoletto suggests, ground segment service providers and end-users keenly adopt cybersecurity guidelines. A trend that will only accelerate next year.

"A few years ago, encryption and authentication were not so much used, while today, the majority of smallsat missions are setting them as a hard requirement from the design phase, also requesting the adoption of zero-trust methods with third parties involved in the overall value chain, " Bortoletto explained.

"Will 2022 see the first cyberattack on a space system disclosed publicly? No one can tell, but statistically, considering the growth of the industry, it's just a question of time."

- Mathieu Bailly, VP Space at CYSEC

Software protection

Most modern satellites are mostly complex computers orbiting the Earth. According to Mathieu Bailly, VP Space at CYSEC, a cybersecurity company, satellite operators will scramble to ramp up software security with first missions generating value by onboard algorithms next year.

"We expect to see space companies starting to embrace the same techniques as in terrestrial embedded systems, " Bailly explained.

Satellite operators will also concern themselves with how to guarantee safety that runs on the cloud. Bailly suggests that space companies will spend a lot of time fine tuning their cloud infrastructure security.

Bailly thinks that next year will see the first attempts to present draft regulations regarding cybersecurity in space. Any regulation would shake the industry as currently, any company is free to fly a satellite with propulsion capabilities.

"Will 2022 see the first cyberattack on a space system disclosed publicly? No one can tell, but statistically, considering the growth of the industry, it's just a question of time. It will be a wake-call for all the operators that have been procrastinating on the topic, " Bailly told CyberNews.

Two Dove satellites pictured after being released from the ISS. Image by NASA.

Unwanted attention

While 2021 saw a tsunami of ransomware attacks, satellites and other space assets were not targeted by threat actors. Dr. Eric Cole, a veteran cybersecurity expert, suggests that might change in 2022.

Cole believes that as ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) affiliates run out of easy targets, they will start eyeing other high-value targets, where victims cannot afford any downtime.

"Satellites fit perfectly into this category and based on the critical communication component; these attacks will make Colonial Pipeline look like small change," Cole explained.

One key reason threat actors might start targeting satellites is that most of the older machines that often run legacy systems were not designed with cybersecurity in mind.

"Satellites are focused on functionality and uptime and based on the overall decision and life of these systems; cybersecurity has not been a primary concern," Cole told CyberNews.

"Satellites fit perfectly into this category and based on the critical communication component; these attacks will make Colonial Pipeline look like small change."

-Dr. Eric Cole, a veteran cybersecurity expert

Critical infrastructure

Legislation, however, might help hinder hacker interest in attacking space systems. Ransomware attacks against Colonial Pipeline and meat supplier JBS allowed the US government to use more resources to catch the criminals.

That's because food production and energy supply systems fall under the 'critical infrastructure' category. According to Charles Denyer, a cybersecurity expert, 2022 might finally be when the US identifies space assets as 'critical infrastructure.'

"A designation for space assets as critical infrastructure would create a much-needed spotlight on protecting our orbital assets. Satellites were not designed for the cyber age - meaning, they are defenseless against cyberattacks, so expect a renewed focus on this very specific topic," Denyer said.

Kibo laboratory robotic arm photographed as it deploys a set of NanoRacks CubeSats. Image by NASA.

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mark beaudry
prefix 2 years ago
This is a fantastic article. I also think that we need to discuss human security in space in addition to technology. This will be a huge concern with a need for both public and private sector cooperation. Cheers.
Gréta Nagy
prefix 2 years ago
Thank you for the opportunity.
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