28/2018

Cybercrime: Security for satellites

Caption: © Thales / BlackSky Next-Generation Satellites
Caption: © Thales / BlackSky Next-Generation Satellites
Around 2,000 satellites are currently in orbit. They explore the Earth's atmosphere, enable communication via cell phone and the Internet and guide cars and people to their destinations. These services have become an integral part of our daily lives. Satellites have long been part of a critical infrastructure. SYSGO AG, headquartered in Klein-Winternheim near Mainz in Rhineland-Palatinate, develops technologies for even better protection against illegal activities in the industrial computer and telecommunications sector.

To ensure that a satellite can fulfill its mission, it is usually equipped with several computers and corresponding software. For example, an application operates sensors in order to input and process weather data. Another controls robot arms, and still another navigates the satellite through space.

Like any other software, such applications can potentially be vulnerable to security gaps that are exploited by malicious hackers (crackers) to take over the satellite. This danger is still relatively new: until about 20 years ago, the number of satellites was low and the possibilities for external takeovers were limited. Security was a marginal issue. Today, satellites without protection against such attacks are no longer conceivable, because the knowledge and technologies needed to carry out these takeovers are easily available on the market. One consequence is that such attacks may increasingly become a part of modern warfare due to their devastating effects.

The possible dangers are manifold. Unauthorized persons could hack into the communication software, manipulate it and thus force a failure. Nevertheless, they could also take control of the navigation and cause the orbital body to crash. The increasing networking of several satellites or even swarms of satellites are also of particular importance. One must therefore prevent unauthorized persons from gaining access to a satellite and manipulating the entire swarm. It is also vital to protect the data processed on satellites.

The satellite operating system

This is where SYSGO AG comes in. The company has been developing an operating system for security-critical applications since 1999: PikeOS. One could simply think of it as a "normal" operating system like Linux but specially developed for the extremely high requirements in space, for example with regard to security and certification. Even before the first line of code was created, PikeOS was designed to meet the exceptional requirements of the aerospace industry. Moreover, as part of the OBC-SA project, PikeOS will be made operational on the computer system of the same name, which is being developed in a collaboration between Airbus and Fraunhofer FOKUS.

The core idea: all applications of the satellite run on one computer, but are strictly separated from each other. Apart from protecting the various applications themselves, this also prevents third parties from hacking into the weather-observation software, for example, and from there, without much effort, getting into the navigation software of the satellite and causing it to crash. Especially in times of increasing networking, this is a major issue. In order to achieve a similar degree of protection, until now the applications have had to run on several physically separate computers. Since the SYSGO project requires only one computer, it saves costs and weight in addition to the gains in security.

Off-the-shelf software

The aim of the project is to have a computer including software that users can buy "off the shelf" and then assemble and use for a variety of purposes. The security solution is also suitable for manned space travel and even for use on the ISS, where significantly higher security requirements apply than for a satellite.

OBC-SA is a joint project with partners Airbus and the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems. These partners develop the hardware—i.e., the actual computer—which has to be particularly resistant to radiation, for example, due to its use in space. The systems are currently being integrated, and environmental tests are planned for the remainder of the year. The project will run until the end of 2018.