In just four launches, the private space company SpaceX became the operator of the largest satellite constellation in Earth orbit, and there are plans to increase the number of vehicles by 175 times. This fact makes us wonder what man-made “constellations” are in the near future for mankind. Oddly enough, the primary problem is not a potential nearby space littering, but vulnerability to cybercriminals.
The main goal of projects such as Starlink (SpaceX, USA), OneWeb (United Kingdom), Kuiper (Amazon, USA) is to provide broadband Internet access around the globe. Each orbital constellation will differ in composition and some characteristics of data transmission systems, however, they are all fundamentally similar. These are relatively inexpensive (the order of prices is hundreds of thousands of dollars excluding launch) and small (weighing 100-300 kilograms) spacecraft (SC) operating, in contrast to existing satellite communications systems, in a low circular orbit (200-1200 kilometers) or orbits.
The low cost of each individual spacecraft (and, accordingly, of the entire project as a whole) is determined by the use of industrial components, which are mass-produced, as well as by conveyor assembly of satellites. Moreover, each of these products has its own propulsion system (for changing the orbit and orientation), a solar panel and a unit of several transceivers. Starlink satellites, for example, will completely communicate with each other via a laser beam, but so far the first phase of orbiters (240 pieces) is dispensed with.
In an ideal situation, everything looks great: you buy a budget terminal for yourself (the expected cost is up to a thousand dollars) and you can watch YouTube, read Wikipedia and download torrents absolutely everywhere (of course, only with Linux distributions). However, the devil was hidden in the details – because we do not live in an ideal world. And this was recently told by Phys.org, or rather, one of the authors of the subsidiary project The Conversation. This portal is intended for scientists, university professors and students so that they can express opinions, analyze and post their articles. Each material must be checked by professional journalists and more experienced members of the community.
Having collected a huge amount of information available in open sources, William Akoto came to the conclusion that the main threat to people and organizations using the services of such satellite communication providers are hackers. If Starlink, OneWeb and other projects have achieved at least most of the claimed characteristics, their audience will grow like an avalanche. Such Internet can be very profitable and convenient in the open sea, remote regions, as well as on airplanes and even in large cities at facilities where an alternative communication line cannot be temporarily or permanently drawn.
One of the key advantages of all such “constellations” of satellites in low orbit – low signal delay – may interest several types of very important customers at once. Firstly, these are infrastructure facilities and utilities in cases where data from them must be obtained promptly. Secondly, it’s the military, which will quickly “try out” the ability to control, for example, drones in real time (the signal lag is less than 100 milliseconds), and not as it is now available with a delay of 0.5-4 seconds, or even more. Thirdly, if the signal delays can be reduced to the promised minimum, Starlink and its competitors will become a very likely tool for traders and financial organizations, and this is money, a lot of money.
The problem with all these satellites lies in their main advantage – cheapness. Manufacturing companies save and will save on everything, which means that not the most obvious issue of cybersecurity may “fall under the knife”. If we add to this the electronic components of mass production, which are relatively easy to find and study, it turns out that hackers have all the cards on hand. Attackers are given the opportunity to analyze targets in such detail as it has never been possible for spacecraft.
And the most dangerous thing is the lack of a legislative base and normative acts concerning this issue. Who will be responsible for the overlooked vulnerability due to which hackers broke into several satellites and displaced them from orbit? if the criminals intercepted the traffic with the help of an extraterrestrial data exchange node and received important information, or even access to the country’s infrastructure facilities, how will responsibility be distributed in this case?
The problem with cybersecurity can manifest itself at all stages of the production process of projects such as Starlink and OneWeb. The use of mass electronic components, but not custom-made or in-house, leaves the opportunity for the contractor to add backdoors (“back doors”) to the design. The same goes for software, and almost to a greater extent.
These are not far-fetched situations: in the recent history of mankind there is already at least one confirmed hacker attack on a satellite. In 1999, attackers were able to remotely infiltrate the internal network of the Goddard Space Flight Center and gained access to computers responsible for monitoring the ROSAT X-ray orbital observatory. It is not known whether this happened intentionally or not, but cybercriminals experimented with various commands to the spacecraft and ultimately disabled it.
As a solution, one can propose the introduction of international standards for the creation and management of private satellite constellations and more stringent certification of such projects. Undoubtedly, Starlink, Kuiper and OneWeb are advanced technologies that are almost certainly good. However, along with progress, risks, sometimes serious ones, always keep pace. This is not a reason to abandon a bright future with Internet access from anywhere in the world, but a number of measures must be taken so that it is not overshadowed by the catastrophic consequences of rash decisions.