Protecting satellites a major concern in New Space age

In my last post on the GovSat Report, I recapped my experience at the recent SATCON Conference, which is one of the year’s largest satellite conferences that takes place as part of the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) Content and Communications World (CCW) event.

Based on the panel discussions and side sessions at this year’s conference, it was clear that a new energy and spark has been ignited within the satellite community – one being ignited by a new wave of innovation from startup companies that are entering the space industry. The drivers for these new startup companies – whose emergence is being tabbed New Space – are reduced barriers to entry thanks in large part to decreased launch and satellite construction costs.

Although the emergence of New Space and the increased attention and excitement around the satellite industry, it comes at a price. The decreased cost to build satellites, the emergence of veritable “commercially available, off the shelf” satellites and the increased access to space thanks to cheaper, more convenient launch could create as many challenges as opportunities.

With satellites easier and less expensive to launch, a veritable army of new satellites are poised to enter – and in some cases, already entering – Earth’s orbit. This is especially the case in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), where access is the easiest and most inexpensive. This influx of new satellites is creating traffic in Earth’s orbit, and generally increasing the chances for collisions and other issues in space.

Tim Deaver of SES Space and Defense discusses threats to satellites and space at the 2015 SATCON Conference.
Tim Deaver of SES Space and Defense discusses threats to satellites and space at the 2015 SATCON Conference.

With New Space receiving so much attention at this year’s event, it’s no surprise that the dangers threatening satellites were also a popular discussion point – they go hand-in-hand. As the density of satellites increases, so does the threat that these satellites will collide.

But the threat to space and satellites isn’t restricted to accidental collision. There are other threats in space – including more malicious threats – that can significantly impact a satellite’s lifespan and ability to function. This aggregated threat landscape was the topic of an entire panel discussion moderated by Tim Deaver, the Corporate Vice President of Development at SES Space and Defense, and an occasional contributor to the GovSat Report, entitled, “The Growing Threat to Space.”

One of the first topics discussed during this panel was the fact that spacecraft – especially those in close contact – could be used for purposes other than what they appear designed to do. For example, satellites in close proximity to others could be used to monitor the signal of those other satellites, steal information or even force them to change their orbit.

This sentiment was echoed by Pat Rayermann of Airbus, who stated, “As we think about all of the capabilities we’re thinking of putting in space today – rapid, affordable launch, potential satellite servicing, robotic assembly of spacecraft – every one of those capabilities could also be used for malicious purposes.

This creates concerns as more countries – including some of our largest adversaries – pursue increased, more aggressive space and satellite programs. This also creates a need for nations to come together and identify the “rules of the road” for operating in space. And when looking to identify these rules, Pat encouraged regulators to work together with industry and move slowly to ensure they keep space investments safe while not impacting innovation. According to Pat:

…I think it’s very important to allow these discussions and rules to develop over time. If we try to adopt a rules set in advance and preclude certain activities, we may find out that we precluded an activity that could be key to some future innovations. It is appropriate for our regulatory and legal regime to adapt slowly over time, but it is an important piece, figuring out how do we manage what can be perceived as threats.

Another common threat that was discussed during this panel – and across many discussions during the show – was the concern around hacking satellites and satellite communications. These threats could be malicious threats from outsiders, or – as one panelist noted – they could be insider threats – the result of disgruntled insiders or mistakes by trusted insiders.

When dealing with the potential hacking and cyber security threats affecting satellites, Andrew D’Uva of Providence Access Company discussed how there needs to be a shift in how we think about and prepare for these threats. Ultimately, the focus needs to change from prevention, to response.

The old mentality was, build a wall around our systems and as long as we build it high enough and strong enough, we’re safe,” Andrew said. “We have to come to the realization that these threats are real, they’re continuous and it’s not about risk elimination, it’s about risk management. If someone gets through the first wall…we have to build the skillset up to deal with that.

Exhibitors and attendees at the annual SATCON Conference, one of the year’s largest satellite-focused events.
Exhibitors and attendees at the annual SATCON Conference, one of the year’s largest satellite-focused events.

However, there could be a simple solution to securing satellites from hackers – use more COMSATCOM services. According to Andrew, “…a lot of time, money and effort is being spent by COMSATCOM operators [on security] because nobody wants to be the first COMSATCOM company that was compromised.

In fact, utilizing COMSATCOM services can be a solution for securing communications via satellite for multiple reasons. First, the satellite providers have been in business for decades and are very familiar with the threats present in space. But, less discussed is the role that COMSATCOM can play in resiliency by enabling an organization, military branch or government agency to diversify, distribute and proliferate their satellite communications while also deploying deception by hiding signals among commercial satellite signals. Ultimately, spreading communications capabilities and signals across government owned and commercial satellites decreases the chances that a single threat can directly impact mission readiness while ensuring that communications are only slightly diminished – and easily recovered – should an attack on a single satellite occur.

The excitement surrounding New Space is warranted. This new era of innovation and interest in space and satellites is stimulating and promising – full of potential for new capabilities and services in space. However, New Space isn’t without its challenges and negatives. The proliferation of satellites is adding to an already crowded threat landscape facing satellites. However, through regulation, cooperation and use of COMSATCOM, organizations, military branches and government agencies can ensure they always have access to mission-critical satellite communications.

For more information on threats to space, be sure to read our previous post from Space Symposium 2015. For more information on commercial SATCOM, visit our Resource Center.

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