Satellite Hackers Seize Control of ESA Satellite

26th Apr 2023
Satellite Hackers Seize Control of ESA Satellite

At the ongoing CYSAT conference in Paris, cybersecurity researchers will show a demonstration of how they hacked into a European Space Agency satellite and took control of its operations. Fortunately, this was an ethical hacking exercise, but it serves to underline how crucial cyberdefense is for satellite operations. Satellite hackers are an increasing threat, as this exercise attempts to drill home.

A full demonstration will show the scenario, and Thales, alongside staff from ESA, will explain potential weaknesses in satellite technology.

Details of the Satellite Hackers Exercise

The hack has been arranged for the CYSAT conference itself and will show the kind of impact this attack could have for civilians and the systems we have sent into space. The attack took over the nanosatellite that was launched back in 2019 with a powerful computer onboard. 

ESA maintained access to the systems throughout the event. As with most ethical hacking exercises, operation continued without interruption.

The VP of Cyber Solutions at Thales, Pierre-Yves Jolivet, explained the point of the hack:

“This unprecedented exercise was a chance to raise awareness of potential flaws and vulnerabilities … [and] to improve the cyber resilience of satellites and space programmes in general, including both ground segments and orbital systems.” 

The company managed seized numerous systems. They demonstrated how a malicious attack would work. They exploited the vulnerabilities of the system to introduce new code within the system. The company explained that the demonstration shows how hackers could achieve objectives “such as masking selected geographic areas in the satellite imagery while concealing their activities to avoid detection by ESA.”

A Real-World Threat

This demo was planned before the recent release of U.S. intelligence documents. Among these documents are some indicating that China is working on capabilities to seize and control “hostile” satellites.

The paperwork suggests that China may jam the block signals between satellites and terrestrial terminals, mimicking the signals and seizing the satellite, “rendering it ineffective to support communications, weapons, or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems,” as U.S. intelligence warned. This real-world threat further proves the real threat of cybercrime in space.

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