Italian hackers win on-orbit Hack-A-Sat hack challenge proving US satellites are not safe

18th Aug 2023
Italian hackers win on-orbit Hack-A-Sat hack challenge proving US satellites are not safe

A special contest organized by the US Air Force and Space Force has ended, and Italian hackers are celebrating their victory. This contest, known as Hack-A-Sat, took place at the DEF CON cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas. The goal was to make sure Defense Department satellites were safe from being hacked.

What is Hack-A-Sat?

Hack-A-Sat began in 2020 to find ways to make satellite systems more secure. This year was its fourth edition. It was inspired by another program called Hack the Pentagon, which asked good hackers to find problems on the Defense Department’s websites and networks.

Over 700 teams of computer researchers joined the contest in April. But only five teams made it to the final round in August. They had to complete hard tasks on the ground and up in space. These tasks tested their abilities in things like operating spacecraft, using radio waves, and figuring out how things work backward (reverse engineering).

The Challenge

The hackers had to hack into a tiny satellite called Moonlighter. It was built by the Aerospace Corporation and the US Air Force Research Laboratory. Moonlighter went to space on June 5, 2023. The hackers had to do connect to the satellite, take a picture of something on the ground, send it back to Earth, and get around the satellite’s rules about what it could take pictures of. Moreover, they needed to protect their systems from other teams. The things like secret codes and strong walls (encryption and firewalls) were used. The satellite was moving really fast, about five miles every second. This made hacking even harder.

Changing the Rules

In the past, the competitors could use simulations of satellites on the ground. But this time, they had to work with a digital copy of the real Moonlighter satellite in a lab. They played a fun game called “capture the flag” where they found hidden clues, like secret messages, in programs and websites made to be tricky.

Who Won?

The top prize went to a team of Italian hackers called mHACKeroni. They won $50,000 for their smart hacking skills. Second place was won by Poland Can Into Space, a group from Poland, and they got $30,000. A British-American team called jmp fs:[rcx] came in third and won $20,000.

Why Does This Matter?

The US Air Force and Space Force are hoping that contests like Hack-A-Sat will help them find problems with their satellites before the bad guys do. Some countries, like China, are trying to figure out how to mess up satellites belonging to other countries. The US uses satellites for important things like knowing where to go, talking to each other, and gathering information. So, they want to make sure these satellites are super safe.

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