When the U.S. Space Force was created by an act of Congress in 2019, it was an acknowledgement by government leaders that the country needed military-level protection on more than just the ground. A combination of technology advancement and cybsersecurity threats had forced the U.S. to protect public and private assets orbiting the Earth — and potentially other planets in the not-too-distant future.
“We now see space as a war fighting domain,” said Maj. Gen. John E. Shaw (pictured, left), commander of the Combined Force Space Component Command, U.S. Space Command and Commander of the Space Operations Command, U.S. Space Force, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. “There’s nothing that we do on the cutting-edge of space that isn’t heavily reliant on the cutting-edge of cybersecurity. Space and cyber are forever intertwined.”
Shaw spoke with John Furrier, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio, during the Space & Cybersecurity Symposium. He was joined by Roland Coelho (pictured, right), chief executive officer of Maverick Space Systems Inc., and they discussed a growing need to protect satellite networks, leveraging young tech talent, the role of innovation in generating new cybersecurity solutions, plans to expand operations on the moon, and the coming of space tourism.
Orbiting system hacked
As satellite technology has evolved, the U.S. and other global powers have come to rely on orbiting systems for business, public services such as weather and GPS tracking, and national defense. Technology can also be compromised by malicious actors, a concern that drives much of the Space Force’s focus on cybersecurity.
At DEF CON, an annual gathering of hackers held virtually this past August, the U.S. Air Force staged a “Hack-A-Sat” challenge. Teams of hackers competed for a $50,000 top prize, and the winning team successfully hijacked a live satellite and rotated it from a normally Earth-facing orbit to take a photo of the moon.
The exercise showed that with the proliferation of satellite constellations, these orbiting networks are just as vulnerable as those on the ground.
“As these constellations grow, that’s going to be done via networks, and because space is a war fighting domain, those networks will come under attack,” Shaw said. “As we expand our activities further into space for national security purposes or exploration or commercial or civil, cutting-edge technologies of AI and machine learning are going to be part of that design work moving forward. Any cutting-edge cybersecurity capability that we have is naturally going to be needed as we develop space capabilities, and we’re going to have to bake that in from the very beginning.”
The DEF CON exercise showed a willingness on the part of the U.S. military to reach out and learn from young, perhaps non-traditional, researchers about how to protect space systems. It was this kind of experience that gave Coelho the opportunity to start his own business and become a significant contributor to the satellite industry.
In 2010, Coelho was an aerospace engineering graduate student at California Polytechnic State University. He and a small team of students were given the task of developing technology for mini-research satellites, or CubeSats, to be used on NASA missions.
“I was fortunate to be part of the team that invented the CubeSat standard by Cal Poly and Stanford back in the 2000s, with the daunting task of launching multiple satellites from five different countries,” Coelho recalled. “As teenagers, we were managing million-dollar budgets and coordinating groups from around the world.”
That experience helped Coelho launch Maverick Space Systems, which provides hardware and services to make it easier for customers to get satellites into orbit. It also taught him a valuable lesson: The technology being used in satellites today could end up powering a whole new wave of innovation in the future.
“Fifteen years ago, before the first iPhone came out, we were building small satellites in the lab and looking at cutting edge state-of-the-art magnetometers and sensors,” Coelho said. “Some of the technology that was put into CubeSats in the early 2000s ended up in the first-generation smartphones.”
First digital military service
This lesson from history is not lost on officials at the Space Force or entrepreneurs seeking to provide cybersecurity solutions for space-based systems. Space exploration has always been about looking toward the future, and top leaders, such as the Space Force’s Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond at the military’s newest branch, are genuinely interested in pushing the innovation envelope.
“He wants the Space Force to be the first truly digital service,” Shaw said. “We want the folks in Space Force to be the early adopters of technology. If there’s ways to change things that the Department of Defense has done that are probably archaic, Space Force is an inflection point for that. This is a chance to change that cultural mindset.”
That change in mindset may become essential as Shaw’s organization grapples with new challenges posed by continued expansion of technology in space. One of those may soon involve a return to the moon.
In September, NASA published additional details around the Artemis program, a project to return a crew to the moon as early as 2023.
“We expect NASA to be conducting human operations in the lunar environment in the next few years, and it is a big data problem by the very definition of that kind of effort,” Shaw explained. “To do it successfully in the years ahead, it’s going to require many sensors, an infusion of data. That’s just if people are not up to mischief. Once you have threats introduced into that environment, it gets even more challenging.”
Could an imminent return to the moon be a forerunner to space tourism? Companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX Corp. have built business plans around flying private passengers into space. A UBS report from last year projected space tourism, both suborbital and orbital, to become a $3-billion market in 10 years.
“We will see commercial space tourism in the future,” Shaw said. “It’s only a matter of time before we have private citizens or private corporations putting people in space, not only for tourism, but for economic activity. A lot of what we do today will end up in civil organizations to do space traffic management and safety. It will be really exciting to watch.”
For the complete four-day Space & Cybersecurity Symposium event lineup, click here.
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