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Can Hackers Convert Satellites into a Weapon Against Humans?

In 2007 and 2008, the annual US Economic and Security Committee report stated that electronic hackers, possibly from China, had taken full control of two NASA satellites used to monitor Earth, Landsat 7 and Terra, via a NASA-owned space station in Spitsbergen, Norway, Where in October 2007 the Landsat 7 satellite suffered 12 minutes of complete pirate control.

While in October 2008 the pirates managed to control Terra for more than nine minutes. According to the report, the pirates were able to send wrong data to the two satellites, keeping them under control.

Let us dive into the details of the satellite penetration world to understand what happened, and is this dangerous to humans?

SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb a Risky Commercial Satellite Race

With SpaceX launching its last satellite from the Starlink family in January, the company has turned into the most significant non-governmental satellite manufacturer in the world by starting 242 satellites of multiple sizes and functions around the Earth, with plans to launch 42,000 satellites over the next ten years.


SpaceX’s plans are in line with its ambitious projects to revolutionize many aspects of daily life, such as providing Internet access in remote parts of the world like many countries in Africa and Asia, as well as monitoring the environment and improving global navigation systems.

SpaceX is not only the company that has such plans, but also the American company Amazon and the English company OneWeb. All companies are racing to lead commercial satellites around the planet.

Amidst all the hype and high-hopes ambitions, there is a danger that appears on the horizon threatening to completely blow up these plans, namely: the lack of high-level standards for cyber or electronic security systems for commercial satellites.

Poor cybersecurity and disastrous aspects of the breach
Where Dr. William Akoto developed a complete study on the vulnerability of the electronic security system for these “commercial” satellites.

In his study, Dr. William Akoto explains it as follows:

“As a researcher studying cyber conflict, I am fully aware that these “commercial” satellites are highly vulnerable to cyberattacks, and he continues: “If pirates manage to control these satellites, the consequences may be very severe.”

Hackers can simply shut down satellites, prevent access to their services, and they can also jam and fully control signals to and from satellites, creating damage to Earth’s critical infrastructure if the hackers want it, and this includes electrical networks, water networks, transport systems, etc. This All from one side.

The dark side of the danger is that some of these new satellites have propulsion engines that allow them to change their direction in space. 

If pirates control these steerable satellites, the consequences could be disastrous. Pirates can change the orbits of satellites and make them collide with other satellites or even the International Space Station.

Electronic security is possible, but…

Dr. William explains that the main reason for this problem is that the makers of these satellites, especially the small ones called CubeSats, rely on ready-made open source security technology to keep costs low. 

The costs associated with ensuring the security of each satellite can be very high, as it can exceed. The cost of guaranteeing cybersecurity is the cost of the moon itself.

The adoption of open source ready-made security technology makes it easy for hackers to analyze these systems in search of vulnerabilities or even send malicious orders, and vulnerabilities such as back doors and others to satellite programs.

Typically, satellites are controlled from ground stations by operating computers. The pirates exploit their software vulnerabilities to control them, and then they can send harmful commands to the spacecraft.

On the other hand, the manufacture and launch of these commercial satellites is a fundamentally complex process that takes place through the participation of multiple manufacturers and companies, and it is most likely that organizations that own satellites such as SpaceX use specialized companies to manage satellites daily. 

With numerous responsibilities, vulnerabilities increase when hackers have more opportunities to breach the security system.

A history of breakouts

Do you think, dear reader, that it is just a fantasy or out of reach? Well, satellite penetration is not new or imaginative; There is even a full history of accidents that have already occurred.

In 1998, pirates took control of the US-made German ROSAT X-Ray satellite. They did this by hacking into computers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Pirates directed the solar panels of the moon directly to the sun, damaging the solar panel batteries and making the satellite useless, forcing German Space Agency to bring it back to Earth in 2001.

In 1999, a group of electronic saboteurs took control of one of the four Skynet satellites for military communications in the United Kingdom and demanded the British government ransom. A British intelligence source at the time made a statement to Reuters saying: “This scenario is a nightmare. This is not just a case of computer freaks. This is very dangerous, and the threat of blackmail has made it even more dangerous.”

In 2018, another group of Chinese pirates reportedly launched an advanced campaign targeting satellite operators. Iranian piracy groups have also tried to launch similar attacks.

Dr. William Akuto returns to his study by saying: “Although the US Department of Defense and the National Security Agency made some efforts to address cyber security in space, the pace was slow. There are currently no standards for cyber security for commercial satellites and nobody to regulate and guarantee their cyber security. 

Even if it is possible to develop common standards, there are no mechanisms to implement them. This means that the responsibility for electronic security via satellite rests with the individual companies that build and operate them.

Dr. William considers the need for strong government participation in developing and organizing cybersecurity standards for satellites and other space assets. 

Congress can work to adopt a comprehensive regulatory framework for the commercial space sector. For example, they could pass legislation requiring satellite manufacturers to develop a typical cyber security architecture.

A reminder of important definitions:

Cyber Security:

Simply put, the term Cyber Security is divided into two parts:

Part 1 Cyber: Its meaning is not only everything related to technology alone, whether operating system such as Windows or Apple iOS or network communication or programs and application etc.but also extends to everything that is related to the Internet of things i.e., everything you have, And it is connected to the Internet like your car or Smart Home shortly.

Part 2 Word Security: It means protecting the first part related to technology, the security of these different electronics. The security of wireless networks is different from the security of information systems, which differs from the safety of the Internet of Things.

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