Delta 6 space operators at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., participated in the first satellite-hacking event, a collaborative exercise between government, industry, academic and commercial cybersecurity researchers to strengthen security in the space domain, Aug. 7-9, 2020.
Hosted by the Department of the Air Force in partnership with the Defense Digital Service, the satellite hacking challenge, Space Security Challenge 2020: Hack-A-Sat, at DEF CON, is one of the world’s largest and most notable hacker conventions. It required the top eight of over 2,000 teams of security researchers, or ethical ‘hackers,’ to test their cybersecurity skills on simulated space systems. These ethical hackers are members of the cyber research and security communities and were tasked to legally and safely identify system weaknesses.
“The Space Force is responsible for operating and assuring technological capabilities that are critical to every American’s way of life, from providing navigation through the Global Positioning Satellite to providing national security through space-based missile warning,” said 1st Lt. Alexander Tymchenko, Hack-A-Sat blue team lead. “Hack-A-Sat demonstrated the very real threats that cyber-attacks on space systems can pose to a digitally connected globe, and the need for the Space Force to invest in securing them.”
During the challenge, the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Defensive Cyber Operations for Space program office and 12 Delta 6 members in the mission defense teams were responsible for monitoring challenge integrity and keeping score during the scenario-based “Capture the Flag” event. The event involved a fictional storyline that culminated in an uncooperative takeover of a rogue satellite.
In this storyline, the winning team would demonstrate their recapture of the hacked satellite by maneuvering the satellite to take a picture of the moon. Using a CTF challenge model, the goal of the event was to create a community where one didn’t currently exist by inviting the space, cyber and security research communities to test their skills in a collaborative and open event.
“Delta 6 operators were able to see how the cyber domain interacts with our critical space missions, and the ways in which satellites and antennas can be exploited to disrupt those missions,” said Tymchenko.
Although the contest focused on having hackers find simulated vulnerabilities in space systems, it also helped the U.S. Air Force and Space Force to better understand the adversarial mindset of a hacker when it comes to exploiting space systems.
“By collaborating with the DEF CON community, SMC and the mission defense teams were able to explore unforeseen research areas in the space security domain, and adopt a more adversarial mindset in how we design and defend space systems,” said Capt. Alexandra Preiss, SMC Defensive Cyber Operations-Space Lead.
Through events like Hack-A-Sat, which partner the information security community in an open and collaborative manner, SMC, the U.S. Air Force and Space Force will continue to improve the way space systems are secured and defended in order to maintain a secure and optimal space domain.
“The lessons learned from the event are going to help establish a new curriculum for the next generation of cyber professionals to defend the space domain,” said Preiss.