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I See Dead Satellites. Is Our Critical Space Infrastructure Compromised?

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

If in your mind you whispered the blog title as you read it, then you're familiar with the 1999 award winning movie “The Sixth Sense”. Throughout his riveting blockbuster, M. Night Shyamalan gave us dozens of micro-clues in plain sight, one after another, and most of us still missed the impending plot twist. Spoiler alert, the child psychologist played by Bruce Willis was actually dead and the boy was not crazy, but had the ability to see and communicate with dead people. A gift of perspective and insight that nobody else could see.

So how is this film related to critical space infrastructure? Glad you asked. Please reload your adult beverage and read on.

Playing the long game.

The recent cyber attacks on JBS foods and Colonial Pipeline were not “end games” but rather “micro-attacks”. They were part of a long rehearsal and intelligence gathering game played by faceless adversaries who want to know how to break our critical infrastructure on a bigger scale, at a later and more strategic time.

When and how will the targeted company respond? What will be their course of action? Who will defend them and to what end? What defenses do they have? What will get them to surrender or comply? These are but a few of the data points the adversaries are collecting. Their primary goal was not to clear $11M in ransom and I bet they don’t care their ransom was taken back. Even in losing their ransom they learned how to plan their big “plot-twist level” attack.

On our side, we don’t hear or remember every single cyber attack because most of them either remain undisclosed or are small enough to fly under media’s radar. In addition, they have been strategically timed in such manner that we forget them by the next news cycle. This is not happenstance, but a well planned long-game attack happening in plain sight.

Out of sight.

Now let me ask this: how much global business is enabled by satellite communications every day? What would be the impact of a prolonged loss of satellite connectivity? What would be the impact on our national defense were we to lose a single high-value special purpose satellite operating over a tactical military theater?

“Critical infrastructure is a term used by governments to describe assets that are essential for the functioning of a society and economy” - Wikipedia.

By any reasonable standard orbiting satellites are part of our commercial and national critical infrastructure; and a key part of the real "end game". (No connection to the Marvel Universe; I’m staying on “The Sixth Sense” here.) We don’t see or think about the satellites in orbit because they “work,” but if they were somehow compromised, we would know immediately.

Or would we?

How would we know?

GEO is ever crowding, changing, and at risk.

There are some 500+ varied purpose satellites at GEO. Most of them are of extreme high-value (hundreds of millions of dollars) and linked to billion-dollar level revenue streams. Because of their intrinsic and linked value, manufacturers and operators are looking for ways to extend the useful life of those already in orbit and design the next generation so that they can be serviced, repaired or even assembled in space. What was the science fiction fantasy of the past is quickly becoming reality thanks to advances in technology in space.

For the purpose of this read, let’s agree on these assertions as facts:

  1. China, Russia, and the USA have “peer” space capabilities

  2. China and Russia are our “faceless adversaries”

We may not say the above facts aloud but they are the “quiet part” that most in the space industry knows and accept.

If someone wanted to execute a “plot-twist" level attack at GEO, they would not immediately resort to kinetic means and sponsor a junk yard sale in space. They would play a long game, a stealthy game to learn about and test the vulnerabilities of related critical infrastructure. It's not out of the question to think our faceless adversaries are doing just that right now.

The truth is that to detect the long game in space, you would need a lot of data, of several modalities, over a long period of time, and an artificial intelligence engine to process all of that data. We’d likely dismiss the anomaly as trivial and move on, just like our faceless adversaries would like us to do.

What would then be the value of a solution, to both industry and national security, that combines these capabilities and delivers them now? A solution of unique perspective and context that reinvents and delivers a new form of space domain awareness, and sees what others can’t see.

The plot twist.

Until recently we dared not say it aloud; but we have now put faces to our adversaries in space. At the very least, some of the cooperation we’ve experienced in space has been part of a long intelligence gathering game that quite frankly we are not handily winning yet. A game of micro-attacks that is designed to dull our senses so we fail to see what may be coming.

Today it is about water purification plants, oil pipelines and meat packing. What about tomorrow? Bruce Willis’ character in “The Sixth Sense” was killed by a former patient with a grudge to settle, and it took an unseen hero to reveal that fact to a stunned Willis and the audience.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer a plot twist where we can surprise our identified “faceless” adversaries by saying: “Is this you?”; because, “I see you.

I’d rather “edit” our current situation to an ending where we actively deter and defend our critical GEO space infrastructure through superior technology and industry experience; perspective and context..

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