With increasing numbers of either theoretical or actual exploits of everything from phones to appliances to cars to medical devices, space researchers are starting to ask whether this is something to be worried about as the skies above our planet get increasingly crowded. Big budget government, scientific or military crafts are well protected, but there’s still a larger than you’d think hobby dimension to space exploration.
Beginning way back in 1961 with OSCAR 1, the first Orbital Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio, and evolving to complete satellites like the UoSAT-1 launch in 1981 of the University of Surrey’s first launch in a series of missions.
Just like the pioneering days of electricity or flight, these experiments push back the frontiers of knowledge and help shape our next generations of engineers, scientists, and researchers.
How do a bunch of radio hams or university students afford to launch something into space? That’s a really expensive proposition, isn’t it? The answer is quite simple: a launch vehicle can place a certain weight of cargo into a certain orbit, and sometimes the primary cargo whose owners are paying for the launch regardless doesn’t use the whole cargo capacity available. Enter the researchers who quite often can secure an agreement to use the remaining capacity as long as they don’t endanger the primary mission. Kind of like a hitchhiker or a rideshare scheme for space launches.
As electronics get smaller and yet more capable, it’s possible to build very small ‘’cube sats’’ that can still do useful science.
So far so good
Big business or government, sometimes military launches help the scientific community and everyone’s happy. After all, these experimental satellites stay where they’re put until the orbit decays and they burn up harmlessly in the high atmosphere.
But, and there’s a big ‘but’ here, a storm may be brewing. Many of the experimental satellites don’t have any kind of encryption or safeguards on their control systems. They have never needed to, they’re supposed to be for open-access research purposes and there hasn’t been anything a hacker could do beyond make a nuisance – but what if that satellite could become a missile and take out or damage another space vehicle?
As the possibility of very small satellites with sophisticated enough propulsion systems to make major changes in orbit gets closer to reality, a paper presented to this year’s small satellite conference by Andrew Kurzrok (Yale University), Manuel Diaz Ramos (University of Colorado, Boulder) and Flora Mechentel (Stanford University) looks at “Evaluating the Risk Posed by Propulsive Small Satellites with Unencrypted Communications Channels to High-Value Orbital Regimes”, and you can find the complete paper here: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/smallsat/2018/all2018/323/
Propulsion systems for small-satellites are approaching the market. At the same time, some operators do not encrypt their communications links, creating the near-term potential for an unauthorized actor to send spurious commands to a satellite. At worst, an unauthorized activation of the propulsion system could precipitate a conjunction. Aside from the potential loss of system hardware, the reputational costs to the industry of such an incident could be significant and far-reaching. To establish a physical basis for the feasibility of this risk, we simulate the potential altitude increase from a 300 km circular orbit generated for a 10 kg nano-satellite coupled with each of the propulsion system types under advanced development. We find that chemical reaction systems enable the satellite to access all altitudes within LEO over short time domains and that electrostatic propulsion is capable of reaching GEO, though over long time domains. Manufacturers, launch service providers and brokers, regulators, and the CubeSat community all have potential roles to play in managing this risk.