By Zac Amos, Features Editor,

More than 6,500 satellites were in orbit around Earth the last time that engineers counted. More than half of these satellites are considered active, while the rest are inactive and will simply orbit until they burn up or fall out of the sky.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recorded the 6,500 number on Jan. 1, 2021, but the number has climbed dramatically since then. SpaceX’s Starlink communications constellation added 989 satellites alone, accounting for nearly 60% of the total global launches last year. The sky is full of stars, but it is also quickly filling up with satellites.

As the technology in these satellites continues to advance, is there a potential for cyber attacks in space? How secure are these orbiting devices, and what measures are in place to keep bad actors from gaining control over them?

Relying on satellites

It’s easy for the average person to forget how essential satellites are because, other than the occasional flashing light in the night sky or rocket launch, they’re out of sight and out of mind. If the growing network of satellites in orbit around Earth fails, life as it currently exists will grind to a halt. The internet would go down. Cellphones and ATMs would stop working, and anyone relying on GPS — on land, at sea or in the air — would find themselves lost. Even television stations would stop functioning because they also rely on satellites to transmit their signals.

Modern life relies so heavily on satellites that the contemporary world would effectively cease to exist if the network failed. It wouldn’t impact more analog forms of communication, but so much of the world relies on satellites now that life would be almost unrecognizable.

The threat of cyber attacks

Cyber attacks have managed to work their way into nearly every networked system on the planet at one time or another. The last few years have seen attacks on water treatment plants, nuclear power plants, gas pipelines and more that have triggered ripple effects. Imagine what they could do with control of one or more satellites in a constellation.

Nearly 80% of hackers are self-taught and often have vivid imaginations. Many of these satellites are integral for various infrastructure-related tasks. A hacker could, in theory, take over a satellite and provide false information.

It might not seem like a big deal if someone sends incorrect GPS information to a cellphone that leads to a driver taking a wrong turn and getting lost, but what happens when that spoofed information ends up on a naval ship or a commercial airliner? Fleet owners suddenly lose the ability to keep track of their vehicles.

Spoofed altitude information could cause an airliner autopilot to crash into the tarmac because the airliner would perceive itself as a few thousand feet up. Spoofed altitude information could also cause naval vessels, cruise ships or other large craft to beach themselves in foul weather or crash into one another because they wouldn’t be able to keep track of each other’s transponders.

Suppose hackers were able to gaine control of the satellite itself rather than just the information it sent. They could change its trajectory, causing it to crash into other satellites or the International Space Station. It could even land in a populated location on Earth if it’s big enough to make it through the atmosphere without burning up. And the threat of cyber attacks on satellites is so much more significant than a bit of inconvenience for the average cellphone user.

Cyber protection for satellites

The biggest challenge that this facet of cyber security faces is that there are no global standards for satellite security. In 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) formed the Space Systems Critical Infrastructure Working Group. It brought together various government and industry members to help protect the space infrastructure that these satellites build.

Cyber security should be on everyone’s mind, especially when considering that IT giants like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, among others, are working to populate the planet’s orbit with these devices. Unfortunately, the space race has put SpaceX and other commercial companies under tremendous pressure to cut costs. Cyber security often ends up on the cutting room floor.

Looking toward the stars

Everyone relies on satellites, often more than they realize. Companies launching rockets to get their satellites into orbit need to shift their focus toward cyber security while the rest of the world looks toward the stars. Satellites are vital, but they can also be dangerous in the wrong hands.

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