Cyberattack On European Spacecraft! How ‘Hackers’ Took Control Of Satellite’s Imaging Sensors & Jeopardized Its Data

Thales’ offensive cybersecurity team, in collaboration with the Group’s Information Technology Security Evaluation Facility, conducted a cyberattack on a European spacecraft to observe how a hacker would take control of the satellite’s imaging sensors and jeopardize its data.

In this era of space warfare, the objects in space must be resilient and robust for any deliberate action which may render spacecraft useless. These actions might be in the form of cyber attacks, kinetic and non-kinetic attacks, and direct action attacks.

Space warfare is inevitable, and the space ecosystem has to be in preparedness at all times.

In a capability demonstrator during an annual event on cybersecurity for the space industry, the European Space Agency (ESA) issued a challenge to cybersecurity professionals in the space industry ecosystem to interfere with the operation of the ESAs “OPS-SAT” demonstration nanosatellite.

In this challenge, the system that controls the payload’s GPS, altitude control system, and onboard imaging sensor was to be taken over by cybersecurity professionals using a range of ethical hacking tactics.

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The aim was to understand how unauthorized access to these systems may result in losing control over the satellite’s mission or significant damage to the satellite.

What Went Through The Challenge

This special exercise, which highlights the demand for a high degree of cyber resilience in the extremely particular operational environment of space, was carried out by Thales’ offensive cybersecurity team in collaboration with the Group’s Information Technology Security Evaluation Facility.

The four cybersecurity experts from Thales gained access to the satellite’s onboard system, took control of its application environment using conventional access permissions, and then utilized several flaws to implant malicious code into the satellite’s systems.

This allowed for other goals, including obscuring certain geographic regions in the satellite imaging while disguising their operations to avoid being discovered by ESA.

This made it possible to jeopardize the data transmitted back to Earth, especially by altering the images taken by the satellite’s imaging sensor.

The exercise was planned primarily to assist in evaluating the effects and repercussions of a true cyberattack on space systems. During the exercise, ESA had access to the satellite’s systems to maintain command and guarantee a return to normal.

The Financial Times has reported that a document marked by the CIA and issued this year reveals that China is building cyber weapons with the capability to hijack enemy satellites.

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