[SATELLITE] The rise of connected satellites, a vulnerable ecosystem

December 18 is a historic date for Star Wars aficionados. The last part of the Skywalker saga will be released on French screens. Millions of moviegoers will invade the cinemas, waiting for the long-awaited outcome of this series of films that has been going on for over 40 years. This intergalactic universe also has similarities with our current world, particularly with regard to new technologies. Indeed, like the Black Star, this ultra-connected and omnipotent space station, there is no shortage of space innovations. Let us take the example of satellites. Since the first satellite was launched in 1957, the number of satellites in orbit has increased steadily. The decrease in production costs correlated with the emergence of new uses, particularly with the emergence of the IoT, has led to the proliferation of these spacecraft. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, intends to send 30,000 more satellites into orbit. For its part, CLS (Collecte Localisation Satellites) and CNES (Centre National d’Études Spatiales) plan to send 20 nanosatellites into space, spread over 5 different orbit planes. The objective? Provide better connectivity in so-called “remote” regions without cellular networks, and help the strengthening of smart devices.

However, this profusion of satellites in orbit, which is supposed to democratize access to new technologies, could lead to security problems. First, the multiplication of satellites is causing space congestion. Above a certain threshold, the number of satellites in orbit would simply make it impossible to explore space and send new satellites. Scientists call this scenario Kessler’s syndrome. Secondly, these satellites produce radio pollution: the waves generated to connect the entire globe may interfere with the radio telescopes installed by the observatories. These devices reflect sunlight and are therefore visible through a telescope.  Finally, the proliferation of satellites will carry many space debris in its wake in the event of an impact. In 2009 two satellites had collided at a very high speed, so they were sprayed by the impact. More than 1,500 pieces of these satellites are still in orbit today. There is also the issue of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), missiles that some states have tested on their own satellites to demonstrate their capabilities, such as India last April which destroyed one of its satellites and created no less than 400 space debris.

In addition to the problems of congestion of the low orbit, space waste or even radio pollution, cyber risks must be taken into consideration. It would most likely be that cybercriminals would decide to divert these artificial stars for espionage or data theft. The Japanese computer security company Trend Micro said that satellites suffer from the same vulnerabilities as connected objects and industrial control systems. Hacking into a satellite is relatively easy: the majority of them are simple radio wave relays. The biggest risk is therefore in jamming or listening to their signal. In 2015, a Russian group called Turla took control of a satellite to indirectly compromise its targets’ computers, armed with a simple satellite dish. In June 2018, Symantec revealed that a Chinese group had attempted to infect a communications satellite. To limit the risk of attack, audits should be carried out upstream on possible satellite vulnerabilities and not allow them to be launched into orbit, a recommendation supported by NATO.  Because if no major disasters have yet been identified, the Earth’s orbit will undoubtedly become a theatre of cyber warfare.