Article   |   January 21, 2020

Unsecured Satellite Communication Links? What Could Go Wrong?

Axel Kloth responds to Lou Covey’s article, “ Modern satellites and fire from the sky.” (EEWeb, 2020, January 21).

As more satellites are launched, the more important securing the connection between control centers and satellites becomes.

Humankind has been pretty inventive in figuring out how to make communication available to everyone everywhere, but what if the means to do that is using lots and lots of mini and micro satellites?

These satellites will have some positive and some negative impact. Astronomy has been negatively impacted because now we have to subtract all the satellite images from the pictures astronomers take, and that makes it a little bit more difficult to discern and discover new things in space around us.

Another thing we've seen lately is that the sheer number of satellites in Low Earth Orbit is becoming so large that very precise control is required. Satellites have to be connected in a secure fashion to a control center, so they can get out of each other's way and out of the way of space debris, asteroids, meteorites, and the like.

From what we have learned, most of the communication from management centers to satellites is unsecured. That poses a problem. Someone could hijack that communication and cause a satellite to change its orbit or crash into other satellites.

While that initially doesn't sound like a great threat, in fact, it would enormously increase the amount of space debris already in orbit. The problem with space debris is that it is moving at a very high velocity, and even small pieces impacting other satellites can destroy them. This would create a chain reaction where one destroyed satellite destroys many other satellites.

With so many satellites in Low Earth Orbit, more of them are in fairly close proximity. Close proximity being 10 or 15 kilometers. Pieces of space debris will impact nearby satellites if we can't manage to send the debris safely back to earth, where it will basically go up in smoke and evaporate upon reentry. If the debris stays in orbit, it will pose a threat to all the neighboring satellites.

SpaceX is planning to launch 12,000 satellites. Assuming Facebook doesn’t want to be outdone, they will do the same, and relatively soon we’ll have 24,000 satellites in orbit. That would mean every few kilometers satellites would be lined up like pearls on a string.

This is why we believe it is mandatory that communication links between control centers and satellites are made secure. In addition, the links must be authenticated so no spoofing, breach of the protocol or breach of the link can occur, so rogue nations or terrorists cannot bring down an entire fleet of satellites.