Military and civilian satellites face increasing threats

A satellite
Military satellites, global positioning systems, weather satellites and even satellite TV systems could all be targets of terrorists combining satellite tracking software freely available on the Internet and some textbook physics.

That's the conclusion of two researchers: Adrian Gheorghe of Old Dominion University Norfolk, in Virginia, USA and Dan Vamanu of "Horia Hulubei" National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, in Bucharest, Romania, published in Inderscience Publishers' International Journal of Critical Infrastructures.

The Web site says the publication aims to provide an authoritative source of information the field of Risk and Vulnerability Assessment and Management of Vital Societal Systems exposed all manner of threats.

Gheorghe and Vamanu have carried out an analysis of just how easy it could be to knock out strategic satellites, their findings suggest that dozens of systems on which military and civilian activities depend make near-space a vulnerable environment.

The team used a so-called "mathematical game" and textbook physics equations for ballistics to help them build a computer model to demonstrate that anti-satellite weaponry is a real possibility.

Accuracy and elegance are not issues in carrying out a satellite attack, the researchers say, as long as the projectile hits the satellite. In fact, all it would take to succeed with an amateurish, yet effective anti-satellite attack would be the control of an intermediate range missile, which is well within the reach of many nations and organizations with sufficient funds, and a college-level team dedicated to the cause.

"Any country in possession of intermediate range rockets may mount a grotesquely unsophisticated attack on another's satellites given the political short-sightedness that would be blind to a potentially devastating retaliation," the researchers say.

Earlier this year two security experts said they discovered a way to inject false messages - some amusing and others potentially frightening - into car satellite navigation systems.

Andrea Barisani, chief security engineer for Inverse Path Ltd. and Daniele Bianco, a hardware hacker at Inverse Path, used off the shelf equipment to transmit messages to their car satellite navigation system warning of conditions ranging from foggy weather to terrorist attacks.

The researchers sent messages over RDS (Radio Data System), a standard created in Europe but also used in North America that allows FM radio stations to transmit data over a sliver of spectrum that runs along every FM channel. RDS can contain information such as the name of the radio station.

They found that the RDS data isn't authenticated or encrypted, which allowed them to broadcast the data to be picked up by any satellite navigation systems.

Most satellite navigation devices cycle through the FM channels looking for the traffic data that could be broadcast over RDS, Barisani said.

A hacker could obscure an existing station, like a man-in-the-middle attack, in order to transmit what they want. Or, a hacker could also transmit over an unused channel, he said.

Others have noted that satellites are also increasingly threatened by hackers.

"The capability to intercept the nation's communication satellite signals is no longer limited to national powers but can be mastered by individuals using off-the-shelf technologies.

Defense against signal interception requires reconsideration of spacecraft design in terms of transmission, propulsion, and encoding technologies.

It is imperative that efforts be taken to minimize vulnerability and prevent those with hostile intentions from compromising security," according to this article in the Online Journal of Space Communication.


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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