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Jul 24, 2023 Article

Building Space Security through Sustainability and Ethics

On July 11, Cityforum, a London-based public policy think tank, convened a Cyber Security Summit to discuss global cybersecurity challenges. The summit featured senior government speakers from the United States and Great Britain, as well as multinational leaders from the private sector and academia.

The panel discussions reflected the robustness of the U.S.-UK partnership in enhancing stability in cyberspace; augmenting workforce hiring, training, and retention programs; and protecting critical infrastructure. A key focus of the summit was that people, not technology, are the most essential component for generating enduring advantages in and through cyberspace. By placing people first, the U.S. and its allied partners can work together to deter conflict and cultivate effective political and social resiliency.

Enhancing Cyber Resiliency

While enhancing cyber resiliency and reinforcing responsible state behavior were at the forefront, attendees were also introduced to the interconnected nature of cyber threats to space systems. Cybersecurity-informed engineering decisions must be executed across the whole lifecycle of the system, rather than being a consideration at the backend. To this point, the Biden administration’s new 2023 National Cybersecurity Strategy articulates the importance of cybersecurity to protect space infrastructure. The U.S. State Department’s new Strategic Framework for Space Diplomacy also champions integrating cybersecurity risk management and design principles as outlined in Space Policy Directive 5: Cybersecurity Principles for Space Systems. The Framework expressly endorses improving the cybersecurity defenses of space ground systems, reducing unauthorized access to critical space system functions, and fostering collaboration across cyber and outer space domains.

As these domains become increasingly interconnected and contested, there is much to examine from an ethical and environmental stewardship perspective.

Cyber and Electronic Counterspace Weapons

First, cyber threats to space systems are unfortunately the “soft underbelly of our global space networks,” announced Lieutenant General Stephen Whiting, commander of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Operations Command.

Cyber counterspace weapons can take a variety of forms like intercepting and monitoring data, corrupting data with malware, or even wresting control of the space system from the space operator. These weapons can disrupt and degrade the functionality of systems, and in extreme cases, destroy them. Relatedly, electronic counterspace weapons disrupt the transmission of radio frequency signals by jamming communication relays. For example, as Eva Berneke, CEO of the French satellite company Eutelsat, explains in The Economist, Iranian state-actors have been jamming and conducting cyber operations against Eutelsat’s satellites. Together, adversaries are leveraging counterspace weapons to exploit reliance on space satellites for communications, navigation, and surveillance needs.

The conflict in Ukraine is another example of how malicious cyber actors can manipulate various points of entry to exploit ground-based, as well as orbiting, systems.. In February 2022, Russian state-actors launched a malicious cyber operation against Viasat Inc.’s KA-SAT commercial satellites, disrupting thousands of modems across Ukraine and Europe. The attack also produced indiscriminate harm by disrupting wind turbines and Internet services to private citizens across Europe. Apart from the Viasat hack, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted on May 10, 2022 that the Starlink Internet ground terminals servicing Ukraine had been the target of “Russian cyberwar jamming and hacking attempts,” and speculated that Russia would be “ramping up their efforts” against Starlink.

"Just as cybersecurity for space systems should not be considered an afterthought, the ethical and sustainability concerns around aggressive counterspace activities, cannot be overlooked."

Space Security, Sustainability, and Ethics

With these threats in mind, the conflict in Ukraine is spurring military and space industry leaders to reevaluate how to fortify space systems from cyber threats. The unclassified fact sheet on the forthcoming 2023 Department of Defense Cyber Strategy identifies Russia as “an acute pacing threat in cyberspace” citing the repeated cyber attacks against Ukrainian civilian critical infrastructure. Targeting commercial space infrastructure that provides dual-use to civilian and military entities—like the European global-based satellite navigation system, Galileo—is a complex area of international humanitarian law. Such military operations require careful consideration of the second and third order effects.

Further, rendering space satellites unresponsive and wresting control away from the system operator increases the risk of conflict escalation and physical collision with other orbiting assets. When spacecraft collide with other objects conducting routine space activity, or are intentionally destroyed, this creates debris and risks triggering a cascading chain reaction of collisions and debris propagation. Known as “collisional cascading” or the Kessler Syndrome, this phenomenon could render an orbit unusable for scientific research and exploration, as well as harm the growth of the commercial space economy. Universe Today reports that if a war were to occur in outer space, orbital debris, colloquially known as space junk, “would destroy all remaining satellites in orbit in the next 40 years.” For these reasons, orbital debris is the top threat to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts, warns NASA.

Orbital debris also raises ethical implications because it produces indiscriminate harm and inhibits future generations from advancing the frontier of scientific knowledge. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Space Diplomacy Framework is intended to help advance space policy to preserve the sustainability of space exploration for posterity.

Just as cybersecurity for space systems should not be considered an afterthought, the ethical and sustainability concerns around aggressive counterspace activities, cannot be overlooked.

Carnegie Council Visiting Fellow Zhanna L. Malekos Smith served as an expert speaker at the Cityforum Cyber Security Summit on July 11, 2023.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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