The cybersecurity aspects of space travel and the threat that compromised infrastructure could pose to human exploration of space are looked at in detail in a new Kaspersky and Zayed University report, “Cyber threat profile of space infrastructure”.

Publication of the report comes as more and more countries are entering space, most recently the United Arab Emirates with its Hope mission. Leading academic institutions, like Zayed University, are playing an important role in developing the technological and human resources required to undertake missions such as Hope.

Funded by the UAE Space Agency, Zayed University (ZU) has designed a Mars simulation chamber to study the red planet environment before manned missions. Additionally, ZU researchers have published spectral signatures library for UAE environment using hyperspectral remote and other sensors.

“Space travel is going to be the norm quite soon, with more countries launching their missions to space,” says Monther Aldwairi, chair of computing and applied technology department at Zayed University. “The latest advancements in technology are what make space exploration feasible soon. Space travel is no longer of interest to only governments, but it is now becoming increasingly popular among private companies aiming to bring space to everyone.”

Space infrastructure encompasses mission-critical systems such as rockets, orbital stations, satellites, unmanned air systems, space probes, robotics, and space-to-earth communications systems. Satellites, for example, are used in several use cases such as monitoring weather, the atmosphere, and intelligence gathering, but also to explore our solar system and outer space. Satellites are then used with communication systems to deliver vital messages to earth stations for analysis.

Just like any critical infrastructure environment, space infrastructure often incorporates a traditional user segment, with a corporate network that hosts e-mail services, e-services, and file servers. There will also be the field, or space, segment, where space probes, sensors, actuators, satellites or similar systems are collecting data from the physical environment. A supervisory or ground layer will interconnect the field devices with the corporate network for monitoring and processing the data collected.

Space infrastructure has multiple entry points: corporate networks or the user segment, satellite communication stations, orbiting satellites, and any system that connects to the space network to use its services. In the near future, as early as late 2022, the entry points could increase further to include LTE/4G towers on the moon’s surface.

The threat to space infrastructure is not fiction but is already happening. In recent years, Kaspersky has seen multiple threat actors abusing space infrastructure. Their goal is to either disrupt satellite communications, exploit the infrastructure to intercept satellite transmissions, or steal sensitive information. Communication satellites are already being targeted and countries are believed to be forming units dedicated to protecting space infrastructure, such as the US Space Force.

“Traditional critical infrastructure has been compromised repeatedly in recent years, with often serious consequences,” says Maher Yamout, senior security researcher at Kaspersky. “Humans must learn from past mistakes and make cybersecurity a priority from the outset as they expand into space.”

The dramatic increase in space travel is going to continue, shaped by the following factors:

* Space tourism will become common and hotels will start to be built in space

* Rocket-propelled planes will enable humans to travel at speeds of up to 27,000 km/h

* Robots will begin to play the role of astronauts, especially in deep space

* Human colonies will be established on different planets

* The mining industry will begin to operate in space.

The above factors will greatly increase the need for critical space infrastructure, especially communications and network systems. The potential attack surface is large, the scope for disruption is considerable and the potential gains for malevolent actors could be very attractive.

It is clear that space travel is spurring rapid advancement in technology and the vital infrastructure that is being created must be protected from the very beginning. As humankind ventures ever further into space, an approach that focuses on the complete protection of space infrastructure will be the only sensible option.