Low-orbit Satellite Security

I’ve been watching the progress of the low-orbit satellite providers which are promising to bring broadband solutions across the planet. There has been some serious movement since the last time I discussed their status.

On January 29, Starlink launched its latest round of low-orbit satellites, bringing the number in space to 242. Not all of these will be delivering broadband. The first half dozen satellites were test units to try out various concepts. Starlink will use 10 of the most recent batch to test the ability to ‘de-orbit’ and bring satellites back to earth.

The latest Starlink satellites weigh 260 kilograms, up from 227 kilograms for the first satellites launched in May 2019. The latest satellites are designed to be 100% demisable, meaning they will completely burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry.

Starlink still has a long way to go to meet its business plan. If they meet all of the planned launches this year, they’ll have 1,500 satellites in orbit. They’ve told the FCC that they plan to have 6,000 satellites in orbit by the end of 2024 and 12,000 by the end of 2027. As they add new satellites the company must also replace the short-lived satellites that only have a planned life of about five years. That means by 2026 they’ll have to launch 1.200 satellites a year forever just to maintain the first fleet of 6,000 satellites.

We also saw some progress being made by OneWeb, the satellite company founded by Greg Wyler with backing from Virgin, Airbus, SoftBank, and Qualcomm. The company launched 6 satellites last year. They recently launched 34 more satellites and the company’s goal is to put 200 satellites in orbit this year.

These launches show that the industry is for real and that over the next few years we’ll see big numbers of low-orbit satellites in the sky. We finally heard just last week from Elon Musk that he does not intend to compete with rural ISPs and will only sell satellite broadband in the most remote places. He still hasn’t disclosed prices – but if he doesn’t compete with existing ISPs he’s not going to have to be competitively priced. Starlink hints that it might add some customers by the end of this year, but the serious launch of broadband service will start next year.

It’s starting to feel odd that these companies won’t talk about broadband speeds. Like with any broadband technology, the degree of oversubscription will affect broadband performance. The first customers to use the satellites might see blazingly fast speeds – but speeds will lower quickly as customers are added. One of the biggest temptations facing these companies will  be to oversubscribe the technology.

Like with any new technology, satellite broadband brings a new set of worries. There is a recent article on Fastcompany by William Akoto asking how we’re going to protect satellite fleets from hacking. If the proposed satellite constellations grow as promised, there will be tens of thousands of satellites circling the earth delivering broadband. Akoto points out that the satellite supply chain is far from secure and open to tampering. The satellites are being constructed by a number of different vendors using off-the-shelf components. The satellites are not much more than a router connected to a solar array.

It’s clear that there are virtually no hardware or software system that can’t be hacked by a determined effort. The satellites will fly over every country on earth, giving ample opportunity for hackers to hack into satellites directly overhead. The satellites will be controlled by earth station hubs, which also might be hacked in the same manner that happens to big corporate server farms.

The consequences of hacking for satellites are direr than with land-based technology. Hackers could turn satellites off making them dead weights in space. They could rearrange the solar collectors to make them run out of power. Hackers could direct all satellites to come back to earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

In the worse scenario, hackers could crash satellites together creating a lot of space debris. NASA scientist Donald Kessler described the dangers of space debris in 1978 in what’s now described as the Kessler syndrome. Every space collision creates more debris and eventually creates a cloud of circling debris that makes it impossible to maintain satellites in space. Many scientists think such a cloud is almost inevitable, but malicious hacking could create such a cloud quickly.

Hacking won’t only affect rural broadband. The ability of satellites to connect remote locations into a unified network is going to be attractive to a wide range of industries. It’s not hard to imagine the satellite constellations being used to connect to critical infrastructure like rural electric grids, rural dams, and industries of all sorts that connect to rural or third-world locations.

Industry experts are already calling for regulation of satellite security. They believe that governments need to step in to mandate that satellite constellations be as safe as possible. While this could be done voluntarily by the industry there doesn’t seem to be any such effort afoot. The consequences of not getting this right could be a disaster for the planet.