Saturday, February 24, 2024

Bridging The Cosmos: Protecting The Satellite Constellations In The Era Of Cyber Threats

By Devanshu Jha

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In a cosmos, both limitless and vulnerable, securing satellites is our cosmic quest. With technological ingenuity and global cooperation, we safeguard our celestial future. This article unveils the vital strategies, merging technology, law, and security for cosmic protection.

In this ever-changing era, satellites are undergoing a remarkable transformation as they become increasingly interconnected, resembling a vast network of digital nodes floating above us. However, this digital connectivity comes at a cost: vulnerability to cyber threats that can penetrate these intricate technological webs. Just like any other advanced system, satellites are not immune to cyber-attacks and must grapple with the same risks and challenges.

One notable development in the satellite industry is the emergence of large constellations comprising numerous satellites launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). While this advancement promises enhanced global connectivity and expanded capabilities, it also raises enduring concerns among diverse groups of stakeholders.

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Traditional satellite operators, who have long been the custodians of the space domain, find themselves faced with novel challenges. These challenges involve managing the complexities of operating and maintaining large constellations and protecting them from malicious cyber intrusions.

The scientific community, particularly astronomers, also voice their apprehensions. The proliferation of satellites in LEO can have adverse effects on astronomical observations, disrupting the delicate balance of our exploration of the cosmos. The increased presence of satellites in the night sky can obstruct celestial observations and hinder our understanding of the universe.

Beyond these traditional concerns, a growing number of activists have joined the cause of safeguarding the space environment. They recognise the importance of preserving the pristine nature of space and preventing the proliferation of space debris. As satellites become more ubiquitous and constellations grow in number, these activists advocate for responsible satellite deployment and the adoption of measures to mitigate the potential environmental impact.

Amidst this backdrop of interconnectedness, vulnerabilities, and concerns, space cyber security emerges as a captivating field of study. It delves into the intricacies of data security within transmission networks that facilitate satellite communication. It encompasses a wide range of aspects, from the signal processing mechanisms employed in the control segments to the security of orbital objects and their complex onboard systems.

In essence, space cyber security fuses the domains of technology and protection, weaving together the realms of satellite operations and cybernetics. It represents a captivating intersection where experts explore innovative solutions to secure the transmission of data and fortify the resilience of satellites against cyber threats in our ever-expanding digital universe.

Challenges And innovations In Low Earth Orbit

Within the realm of commercial space applications, a significant focus lies on activities taking place in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This primarily involves the utilisation of remote sensing satellites for Earth observation and monitoring human activities. While a smaller portion of LEO activities is dedicated to communication services, there has been a notable rise in NewSpace applications that allow for the development and deployment of satellite configurations such as swarms, CubeSats, and nanosatellites. These innovations offer cost-effective solutions for Earth observation and integrated applications, albeit with a trade-off in terms of reduced reliability.

Of particular interest are the constellations of satellites that are being deployed in LEO. These constellations consist of a large number of interconnected satellites, with some comprising thousands of individual assets. While these constellations bring benefits such as enhanced coverage and connectivity, they also present significant challenges. One such challenge is collision avoidance. With a large number of satellites occupying the same orbital space, the risk of collision increases, necessitating the implementation of robust collision avoidance systems and effective space traffic management frameworks.

One incident that exemplifies this risk occurred in April 2020 when two satellites from the Starlink and OneWeb constellations came dangerously close to each other. This event underscored the pressing need for collision avoidance measures and highlighted the importance of developing a comprehensive space traffic management framework.

Balancing latency And Coverage

One of the advantages of utilising LEO for satellite operations is the reduced communication latency compared to satellites in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). This low latency is particularly advantageous for applications such as global 5G internet services, providing a competitive edge in markets reliant on fast and responsive internet connectivity. However, due to the nature of LEO orbits, a single satellite can only cover a small portion of the Earth’s surface within a short time window. As a result, more satellites are required in a constellation to achieve global coverage compared to satellites in GEO. Managing the network of interconnected satellites in LEO becomes complex due to the constantly changing topology and high mobility, posing challenges for reliable information transmission between ground stations, satellites, and satellite-to-satellite links.

The proliferation of satellites within large constellations contributes to congestion in LEO, exacerbating the risk of collisions. Furthermore, as projections indicate, a significant percentage of satellites within these constellations may become inoperable over time, leading to the generation of space debris. The issue of space debris is a growing concern for LEO, especially with regard to the sustainability and long-term viability of space operations. Effective space debris mitigation strategies and policies are necessary to address this risk and ensure a safe and sustainable space environment.

LEO also poses challenges in terms of satellite lifetime and disposal. Satellites in LEO can remain in orbit for several decades after their operational service ends, depending on factors such as atmospheric drag. Proper disposal mechanisms, such as using drag devices for self-deorbiting, are crucial to prevent inactive satellites from becoming hazards that can potentially collide with operational assets. Integrating deorbiting plans into satellite designs can help mitigate risks and ensure responsible end-of-life management.

Additionally, the use of CubeSats and nanosatellites introduces new complications. These smaller assets, while enabling innovative and cost-effective space missions, are often challenging to track and monitor from Earth-based telescopes. The proliferation of these small satellites, coupled with existing space debris, raises concerns about a potential Kessler effect, where the density of objects in space reaches a point where collisions generate further debris, making space exploration and utilisation more difficult.

In this evolving landscape, the threat of cyber-attacks on space assets cannot be ignored. Cyber capabilities can cause significant damage to space infrastructure at relatively low costs. These attacks can target ground control systems, intercept satellite signals, or compromise various electronic components. Attribution of such cyber activities can be challenging, allowing both state and non-state actors to potentially access and exploit vulnerabilities in space systems. Ensuring robust cybersecurity measures, integrating security standards during the design process, and fostering international collaboration are vital to safeguard space assets from cyber threats.

Addressing the safety and security of space assets requires a multidimensional approach. Technological advancements and innovations play a crucial role in enhancing the resilience of space systems. Simultaneously, legal frameworks need to be developed to establish accountability and liability for actions that pose risks to space systems, including collisions, failures, and cyber interferences. International organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are involved in defining regulations and standards for space activities, including the allocation of orbits and frequencies to prevent interference between different actors.

Legal Framework For Cyber-Secure Large Constellations

In an ambitious quest to deliver internet connectivity to every corner of the globe, grand constellations of satellites endeavour to revolutionise global access with lightning-fast speeds and immense capacity. However, this bold endeavour brings with it a lurking peril—the looming spectre of cyber assaults targeting not only the celestial platforms themselves but also the precious assets they harbour.

Imagine a celestial ballet unfolding high above as a myriad of interconnected satellites form an intricate web to bridge the digital divide. These celestial pioneers, traversing the heavens, strive to create a global network that knows no boundaries. Their noble mission promises a world where connectivity transcends geographical limitations, where the remotest regions are embraced by the digital fabric of modern society.

Yet, in this breathtaking celestial symphony, a sinister undertone emerges. The very attributes that make these constellations a technological marvel also render them vulnerable to the insidious reach of cyber adversaries. Like shadows lurking in the vast expanse of space, cyber attackers lie in wait, poised to exploit any weaknesses that may permeate the cosmic infrastructure.

The stakes are high, for these interconnected constellations possess the power to reshape the digital landscape as we know it. Their potential to deliver low-latency, high-capacity internet services holds the key to unlocking unprecedented opportunities for individuals, businesses, and societies. However, this promise of boundless connectivity comes hand in hand with the grave risk of cyber onslaughts.

The celestial platforms, those beacons of connectivity that dot the night sky, stand as prime targets for malicious actors seeking to disrupt the delicate balance of the digital realm. Their intricate network architecture, the intricate interplay of signals and data coursing through the cosmic pathways, becomes an enticing playground for cyber assailants. With a single stroke of malevolence, they could sow chaos, severing the lifelines that connect individuals and communities, and cast a dark cloud over the promise of a connected world.

But it is not only the platforms themselves that are at risk. The precious assets carried by these celestial envoys, the satellites that traverse the celestial expanse, are also in the crosshairs of cyber adversaries. These technological marvels, teeming with state-of-the-art systems and sensitive information, become tantalising targets for those with malicious intent. Their vulnerability in the vastness of space leaves them exposed to the clandestine manoeuvres of hackers, who seek to exploit any vulnerability, jeopardising the very fabric of our interconnected world.

As humanity reaches for the stars in its quest for universal connectivity, we must not lose sight of the perils that lurk in the celestial abyss. Cyber defences must stand as stalwart guardians, protecting the celestial pioneers and their precious cargo from the looming shadows of the digital realm. Only by fortifying the cosmic infrastructure, and by fortifying our resolve to combat cyber threats, can we ensure that the celestial ballet continues its graceful performance, illuminating the world with the transformative power of connectivity, unmarred by the terrors of the virtual underworld.

Satellite GPS network communication scene with aircraft, ship, ground antenna, and car
Satellite GPS network communication scene with aircraft, ship, ground antenna, and car

Definition And Legality Of The Large Constellations Of Satellites

Embark on a captivating journey through the cosmos, where an intricate web of artificial satellites, known as large constellations, adorns the celestial stage. These constellations consist of hundreds and thousands of satellites working in unison, gracefully orbiting the Earth as a synchronised system. Together, they aim to revolutionise global internet connectivity, offering low-latency and high-capacity access to users around the world.

While the advent of large constellations promises groundbreaking advancements in global communication, it also raises crucial legal concerns. One of the foremost issues is ensuring the cyber safety of these intricate systems. Safeguarding large constellations and their assets from potential cyber-attacks becomes paramount in this new era of interconnectedness.

As these constellations proliferate, it becomes essential to develop a robust legal framework that promotes the sustainable and secure use of outer space, including the large constellations, their associated technologies, and the services they provide. Achieving this delicate balance between legal regulations and technological ingenuity presents a fascinating challenge.

One significant area of concern is space safety. The deployment of satellites by various entities contributes to congestion in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which, in turn, increases the risks of collisions between satellites in orbit. Such collisions can have far-reaching consequences and undermine the core principle of customary international law in outer space—the “freedom of access.” The freedom to operate and navigate space without undue restrictions is a fundamental tenet of space exploration, and preserving it amidst the surge of large constellations becomes a pivotal task.

Moreover, the vulnerability of satellites to cyber-attacks in space adds an additional layer of complexity. While space assets were traditionally considered secure from physical aggression, the evolving landscape of cyber warfare now extends into the outer reaches of the cosmos. Protecting satellites from cyber threats and ensuring the integrity of their operations becomes an urgent matter that necessitates comprehensive legal provisions.

Interestingly, the existing space treaties, such as the Outer Space Treaty (OST), do not explicitly define the concept of a “large constellation of satellites.” This lack of precise terminology poses a unique challenge for regulators and policymakers. As these innovative systems transcend the boundaries of conventional space activities, existing legal frameworks must adapt to address the novel issues raised by large constellations.

Harmonising the governance of large constellations at the international level becomes a subject of captivating discussion. As different countries have varying space-related procedures and regulations, the challenge lies in establishing coherent and unified regulations that transcend national boundaries. Avoiding legal fragmentation while effectively governing large constellations becomes a crucial objective in this endeavour.

To ensure a secure and interference-free environment, preventing harmful interference between operators, is of utmost importance. The intentional disruption or blockage of satellite signals can have severe consequences, affecting vital services such as communication, navigation, and even endangering international air traffic. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) plays a vital role in administering and organising satellite services, allocating orbital slots, and combatting intentional interference. However, identifying and attributing cyber operations that cause harmful interference can be a complex task, given the intangible nature of such attacks.

In addition to international regulations, national frameworks for space safety play a significant role in protecting critical assets. Nations like the United States have established regulatory bodies and public-private partnerships dedicated to safeguarding satellites from cyber threats. The convergence of space and cyberspace requires continuous development and adaptation of national cybersecurity policies to ensure the resilience of satellite systems.

In the dynamic realm of large constellations, the Small-Sat market has witnessed significant growth. These smaller satellites, often weighing less than 180kg, offer advantages such as avoiding the Van Allen radiation belts, which reduce the risk of damage to their electronics. The market anticipates rapid expansion of large constellations with players like Starlink, OneWeb, Kuiper, Telesat, Hongyan, Hongyun, and Sphere leading the way.

As we explore the captivating world of large constellations, the importance of technical standards for safety and cybersecurity comes to the forefront. These standards form the backbone of secure and resilient operations within these vast networks of interconnected satellites. Ensuring adherence to these standards becomes crucial to maintaining the integrity and reliability of large constellations.

So, venture forth into this enthralling universe where cutting-edge technology, legal frameworks, and cybersecurity converge. Witness the cosmic dance of large constellations as they illuminate the skies, shaping the future of global connectivity while safeguarding their celestial pathways from cyber threats and ensuring the safe exploration of outer space.

Technical Standards For Cyber Safety Of Large Constellations

Verifying the source of cyber activities related to ground-satellite communication poses a significant challenge due to the complex nature of signal transmission. While attacks along the ground-satellite path are possible, the idea of an attack within the satellite-satellite segment remains hypothetical and unproven. Offensive satellites would require additional sensors and actuators not typically found onboard. Potential methods could involve using satellite awareness sensors to gather information about victim satellites or utilising third-party systems. Electromagnetic pulse actuators and radio frequency actuators might be employed to induce power system failures and GPS spoofing, respectively.

Advancements in satellite communications (SATCOM) and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) have led to the development of a multilayer satellite system topology with a cross-layer design of multi-path routing and a communication protocol stack. Utilising higher carrier frequencies, such as the X- through Ka-bands, offers advantages like reduced antenna aperture and higher data transfer rates. However, Ku/Ka bands are primarily suited for satellite-to-satellite communications for larger spacecraft.

To address congestion in lower RF frequencies, advanced programming techniques like the CCSDS low-density parity-check code (LDPC) family have proven effective in providing bandwidth and power trade-offs for CubeSat missions. Lasercom technologies, exemplified by the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) mission, have demonstrated successful data transfer in small spacecraft. Quantum key distribution (QKD) presents a potential solution for reducing cyber-attack risks by establishing private encryption keys between parties. The Zero-Trust Architecture, with its “never trust, always verify” approach, offers enhanced cybersecurity measures through threat protection and user access management.

Blockchain technologies have also shown promise in addressing security and trust issues in the space sector by providing decentralised and tamper-resistant data storage. However, limitations exist in terms of performance, scalability, privacy, and security vulnerabilities. An intrusion detection system (IDS) serves as the backbone of a cyber-resilient spacecraft, continuously monitoring telemetry and taking automatic actions through the intrusion prevention system (IPS) when threats are detected.

Emerging technologies are shaping standards for satellite-satellite communication and uplink/downlink operations in Small-Sats and CubeSats within large constellations. Implementing and adhering to these standards contribute to enhancing the safety of assets against hostile cyber operations.

Satellite in low Earth orbit illustrative
Satellite in low Earth orbit illustrative

Shared Risks And Shared Responsibilities

Understanding cyber risks in the context of large satellite constellations is a challenging task. It is crucial to establish clear distinctions between the terms vulnerability, threat, and risk, as they represent different aspects of the problem. A vulnerability refers to a weakness inherent in an asset that can be taken advantage of by an adversary. On the other hand, a threat arises when an adversary possesses the necessary motivation, resources, and intent to exploit a vulnerability. Finally, the resulting risk signifies the potential for the asset to suffer loss or damage when an adversary actively exploits the identified vulnerability.

Decoding the complexities of cyber risks in vast satellite constellations demands careful consideration of these terms. By recognising the distinct nature of vulnerabilities, threats, and risks, we need to gain a deeper understanding of the intricate dynamics involved. Only then can we devise effective strategies to mitigate potential dangers and safeguard these valuable assets.

In order to ensure the continuity and resilience of an organisation, it is crucial to establish an adaptive system. McCormick defines an adaptive system as one that “aggressively adapts to the unexpected,” emphasising the need for continuous learning from the environment. This principle applies not only to cyber and space systems but also to any critical system, necessitating their autonomy and isolation from the public network to prevent intrusions. This can be achieved through the development of independent information and communications technology (ICT) systems that operate without internet connectivity. Additionally, accrediting all public and classified systems serves as a valuable practice for identifying and protecting potential weak links against intrusions and attacks.

Large satellite constellations represent complex systems spanning multiple domains, sectors, and assets. Technological advancements enabling these constellations require a coordinated effort to address the challenges associated with spacecraft operations and space traffic. As the significance of these constellations grows, so does the attention from threat actors targeting space systems through cyber-attacks. Consequently, research and intelligence on space system vulnerabilities are becoming more sophisticated, detailed, and accessible. To address these evolving threats, states are working to increase awareness of vulnerabilities and adversary capabilities. The National Air and Space Intelligence Centre (NASIC) has identified cyber threats and risks in four categories: the space segment, user segment, link segment, and ground segment. The supply chain also poses a significant potential point of access for cyber-attacks, given the involvement of multiple manufacturers and system integrators. Military satellites already employ advanced encryption methods and secure ground infrastructures to mitigate the risk of cyber-attacks. Effective risk monitoring begins with a well-designed cyber resilient posture, where space systems continuously monitor, anticipate, and adapt to mitigate cyber activities that could manipulate, deny, degrade, disrupt, destroy, surveil, or eavesdrop on space operations.

Radiation exposure in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) can lead to electronic component damage and solar panel degradation aboard spacecraft. Collaborative efforts between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA aim to establish a pre-warning system based on in-space and Earth monitoring of solar activity, aiming to minimise the impact of adverse space weather on both spacecraft and Earth.

In-space operations and end-of-life considerations also entail risks. As of January 1, 2021, there are 6,542 satellites recorded by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), with 3,372 satellites active and 3,170 satellites inactive. This number is expected to exceed 100,000 by the end of the decade. Despite employing collision avoidance manoeuvres, the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) can play a vital role in early collision risk detection and activation of avoidance manoeuvres directly from the spacecraft itself, reducing reliance on ground control. Additionally, drawing parallels with aeronautical regulations, establishing a space traffic management authority becomes crucial to address the congested traffic in LEO and ensure the safety of the space environment.

In summary, safeguarding business continuity and resilience requires the establishment of adaptive systems, the isolation of critical systems, and robust monitoring of cyber activities. Moreover, addressing radiation exposure, space debris, and congestion in space operations necessitates collaborative efforts, technological advancements, and the establishment of regulatory frameworks.


Space holds strategic importance, and certain satellites are integral to a nation’s critical infrastructure. The ramifications of cyber-attacks and threats targeting satellites extend to national security, necessitating commercial actors to comprehend the potential consequences their satellites pose in this regard. Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) assigns direct responsibility to states for their national space activities. It requires an “appropriate State” to oversee and authorise space activities of non-governmental entities, albeit without precise definitions. The Liability Convention covers physical damage caused by space objects. If harmful interference is attributed to a government or non-government entity, an important question arises: Has the involved state taken sufficient measures to prevent or halt this interference? Failure to take necessary action renders the state responsible for the harmful interference.

However, the notion of responsibility for the use of force can be re-evaluated if a cyber operation reaches a scale and impact comparable to non-cyber operations that constitute a use of force. Establishing a threshold may prove challenging, leading to the consideration of various factors such as severity, immediacy, directness, invasiveness, measurability of effects, military character, state involvement, and presumptive legality. A case-by-case evaluation is crucial in determining whether a cyber operation qualifies for a “use of force.” If it meets these parameters, the threat of such an operation would be illegal under international law.

In the event of satellite signal interference or jamming, member states must adhere to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) provisions and engage in cooperation with other states to eliminate harmful interference through bilateral negotiations. If negotiations fail to yield a resolution, the affected state can pursue arbitration. An example illustrating the consequences of a hostile cyber operation is the 1998 US-German ROSAT X-Ray satellite hack. Hackers infiltrated the ground control system at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, redirecting the satellite’s solar panels towards the sun, resulting in the destruction of batteries and the satellite’s subsequent descent to Earth in 2011.

With the framework governing state responsibility in place, risk mitigation in space operations relies on defining and understanding the vulnerabilities of the most attractive assets to hackers, both physical and virtual, and implementing adequate defence and protection measures. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) facilitates the establishment of a risk management framework (RMF), already adopted by several governments for cybersecurity. The NIST CSF encompasses five elements: identification, protection, detection, response, and recovery, which are implemented simultaneously to form the foundation for robust cybersecurity risk management. Additionally, the United States Department of Defence (DoD) introduced the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) to evaluate the cybersecurity capabilities, readiness, and sophistication of defence contractors. This serves as an exemplary model for effective cybersecurity practices. Overall, these frameworks and initiatives showcase successful approaches to managing cybersecurity risks and safeguarding assets in space.

Final Thoughts

The emergence of extensive networks of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) presents a range of intricate technical and legal obstacles, with cybersecurity standing out as a paramount concern. These vast constellations are reshaping the landscape of satellite communications, offering ease of deployment and utilisation. This study proposes potential technologies to mitigate cybersecurity risks and ensure the security of space assets. Moreover, to safeguard space assets and the critical infrastructure supporting them against cyber threats, while guaranteeing the uninterrupted flow of space operations for both governmental and commercial entities, this work re-examines the legal definition of large constellations and the associated responsibilities in risk mitigation. Finally, this exploration presents successful instances of national frameworks or organisations as a valuable reference for future endeavors to establish a legal framework tailored to space activities involving expansive constellations.

Devanshu Jha, an accomplished technical consultant, researcher, and adviser, has made significant contributions to various international organisations and forums like the IYNC, SOHO, IPAC Extragalactic, CTBTO, ENGYF, United Nations, SCO, COP-26, BRICS, UNOOSA, and ASEAN Youth Summit. His expertise is reflected in the publication of approximately 75 research papers


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