Researchers say cubesats with propulsion systems must have encrypted software

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Capitalism in space: Researchers from Yale University are recommending that the smallsat industry establish rules requiring all future cubesats that carry their own propulsion systems be encrypted to prevent them from being hacked.

That research by a team of graduate students, presented at the AIAA/Utah State University Conference on Small Satellites here Aug. 9, recommended the space industry take steps to prevent the launch of such satellites to avoid an incident that could lead to a “regulatory overreaction” by government agencies. “We would propose as a policy that, for those cubesats and smallsats that have propulsion, that the industry adopt a ‘no encryption, no fly’ rule,” said Andrew Kurzrok of Yale University.

That recommendation comes as cubesat developers, who once had few, if any, options for onboard propulsion, are now looking to make use of more advanced chemical and electric propulsion systems. Some of those technologies can provide smallsats with large changes in velocity, which can enable major orbital changes.

Kurzrok and colleagues at Stanford University and the University of Colorado modeled several different propulsion systems on a notional 10-kilogram nanosatellite, assuming the spacecraft was in a 300-kilometer orbit and that the propulsion systems accounted for half the spacecraft’s mass. The results ranged from the satellite reaching medium Earth orbit altitudes within two hours when using chemical propulsion to passing geostationary orbit in about a year with an electric propulsion system.

The scenario involving the nanosatellite with chemical propulsion is particularly troubling, he said. “What are the abilities within two hours to track that something isn’t where it’s supposed to be and then warn or take some sort of secondary action?” he said, concluding that the satellite reaching GEO in a year is a much less plausible threat.

The concern, then is a scenario where hackers are able to take control of a satellite and redirect it quickly.

Getting encryption for their software would raise costs, but it really is the cost of doing business. Better for the industry to create these rules than wait for the federal government to step in, as the government regulation will certainly end up being more odious and difficult to change.



  • Mike Nelson

    I would suggest that it be mandatory that they employ encrypted transmission as well. At orbital velocities these things are bombs flying around and ensuring they are hack proof is MANDATORY. Way too easy to weaponize if not.

  • Localfluff

    Encryption would be prudent for all command communication with satellites in LEO to GEO. They might be made to overheat and explode, or rotate so fast that they are torn apart. Like the X-ray satellite Hitomi did in 2016 due to a sensor wrongly reporting that it was spinning and the reactions wheels automatically tried to counter that stuck sensor by actually making it rotate faster and faster the other way. And then the thrusters were engaged, but made it even worse. (Good software development practices in a wider sense than encryption would be nice, as in the case of Hitomi).

  • pzatchok

    What type of encryption?

    Software? Slows down computer reactions and communications.

    Hardware electronic encryption? Faster and safer but far more expensive.

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