Space Wars

Why Our Space Systems Need an Upgrade

A satellite dish at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in North Carolina. Freeside510 / Flickr

In September 2014, hackers from China broke into the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) network in an attempt to disrupt data related to disaster planning, aviation, and much more coming from U.S. satellites. This breach was the latest in a series of cyberattacks on space systems, exposing the Achilles’ heel of such technology: the vulnerability of its computers and the information it creates and transmits. Cyberattacks, which are on the rise in every industry, pose particularly significant threats to space systems as they are used so ubiquitously in corporate and military operations, making them increasingly attractive targets for hackers. 

Although only about a dozen countries have the capability to launch a satellite into space, billions of people around the world rely on space systems for nearly every aspect of modern life. Satellites are used to support phones, the Internet, and banking systems. They are also used to monitor land, air, and maritime traffic; facilitate global communications; transmit mass media in real time; monitor the earth for climate change or severe weather threats and natural disasters; gather intelligence; and send early warnings of incoming ballistic missiles. It is no wonder, then, that the global economy depends on communication satellites, navigation systems, and earth-observation satellites.

The backbone of all these services consists of 1,200 operational satellites currently orbiting the earth, which have the potential to cause significant tangible damage by attacking national or global space systems across countries and continents. Even a small glitch can wreak havoc. For example, in April 2014, the Glonass System, the Russian equivalent of the American-designed GPS, malfunctioned due to two small mathematical mistakes in the software. Significantly, fixing the system took more than 13 hours, and the half-day breakdown led to severe disruption of Glonass receivers, which affected iPhone5 users. While the disruption was not caused by ambitious hackers, it is easy to see why space systems are the brass ring of cybercrimes: They are low effort and high return. Therefore, a relatively simple hack can inflict

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