Dec 1, 2020 - Science

The many ways foreign powers can mess with satellites

a satellite with military wings
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some nations are capable of disabling satellites without destroying them, opening up different avenues for how conflicts may play out in space.

The big picture: One of the major concerns about warfare in space is the uncontrollable nature of space junk created from destroying or permanently disabling satellites.

  • Directly destroying satellites or taking them offline without proper disposal could make large swaths of various orbits unusable for everyone, not just the targeted party.

Where it stands: Other forms of attack — like jamming or cyber threats — are less wide-reaching and more difficult to attribute.

  • Jamming, for example, interferes with a satellite's ability to send and receive information, but accidental jamming and interference happens often.
  • "In 2015, General John Hyten, then-commander of Air Force Space Command, noted that the U.S. military was unintentionally jamming its own communications satellites an average of 23 times per month," the CSIS 2020 Space Threat Assessment report says.
  • Cyberattacks on satellites can disable the spacecraft and result in stolen data. These types of attacks could be performed by individuals or government actors.

Between the lines: Countries are looking into ways to track what's happening in space at any given time, potentially helping to more quickly tie attacks to perpetrators.

  • As nations work to set up their own offensive and defensive postures in space, beefing up cybersecurity will also be key.
  • "The plumbing and hardware" underpinning the management of satellites and their ground-control systems have on average "a cybersecurity posture of something made in 1995," hacker Ang Cui, who has worked on space cybersecurity issues, told me.
  • In September, the White House issued a new space policy directive on cybersecurity that outlines the best practices — like using robust encryption and anti-jamming tech — for agencies and companies operating in space.

Go deeper: The rise of military space powers

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