Space: the new cyber crime frontier

What if hackers hijacked a key satellite? Jerome Taylor reports on the next generation of threat

It sounds like the imaginings of science fiction writers. However cyber experts warned yesterday that hackers could send the world back to the 1960s by hijacking satellites dotted around space, creating havoc below.

Our overwhelming reliance on space technology makes us acutely vulnerable were it to ever break down or be deliberately sabotaged. For those gathered at the conference on national security and space at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) yesterday it was an issue they felt needed to be confronted more openly.

"It is a real issue and a real vulnerability," explained Mark Roberts, a former space and cyber expert at the Ministry of Defence who has recently moved to the private sector. "What we are doing is making ourselves more vulnerable to attack than we had been formerly. My personal view is that a day without space is not going – as some people say – to send us back to the dark ages. It's more likely to put us back into the 1960s."

Every day, miles above the Earth's atmosphere, an army of satellites provides us with a vital stream of information. From our mobile phones to satnavs, from shipping channels to television broadcasts, from the monitoring of our melting polar ice caps to the running of vital defence systems – our world would struggle to function without the satellites above us.

Cyber experts from across Britain gathered in London yesterday to ponder what would happen if we were forced to deal with a "day without space". The threats against our satellites are as varied as they are numerous.

From solar storms that temporarily knock out communication, to mid-stratosphere crashes and deliberate attack, satellites are frighteningly vulnerable. One of the issues causing the most concerns – that has somewhat belatedly sparked attempts to initiate a clean-up – is the sheer amount of litter surrounding Earth. Nasa estimates that there are as many as 16,000 pieces of debris larger than 10cm orbiting within 2,000km of earth – the region where most of the world's satellites are positioned. Each piece can travel at tens of thousands of kilometres an hour, and could easily destroy any satellite it meets.

It's also getting crowded up there. Since the space race began in the late 1950s, more than 6,500 satellites have been sent up, of which only 994 are still operational. As Professor Richard Crowther, from the UK Space Agency put it: "Space is infinite, but the space around the earth is finite."

Three years ago the world was given a frightening glimpse into what will happen unless we reduce the number of redundant satellites in space when a working telecommunications satellite built by the US firm Iridium was struck by a defunct Russian Kosmos satellite. The computer models predicted the satellites would pass with half a kilometre of each other. Instead the collision, which took place at 26,000 miles per hour, created more 1,000 extra pieces of debris larger than 10cm – which are still causing problems to this day.

Given the carnage that can be unleashed by a collision, the array of redundant satellites provides an opportunity for malignant hackers looking to cause mayhem for strategic or anarchic reasons.

Mark Roberts, who pioneered the introduction of cyber elements into the war games that the MoD runs, hypothesised a scenario in which hackers take control of one or multiple redundant satellites and use them to crash into more vital ones.

"There are lots of satellites in orbit at the moment that have been taken off line," he explained. "They still have propulsion, they have the ability to be restarted. Somebody particularly nasty could hack one of these things and then start to manoeuvre it."

One Nasa scientist – Donald Kessler – even predicted a single large collisions could produce enough debris to create a cascading effect where future collisions increase exponentially – making space travel and satellites impossible for a generation.

While the military has long prepared for the possibility of operating without GPS, emergency services are now beginning to consider having to do their jobs in such circumstances. Chief Superintendent Jim Hammond, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, warned that a 24-hour stoppage in GPS data within London would quickly have knock-on effects on transport, City trading as well as the emergency services' ability to communicate with or locate tagged criminals.

"The art of looking at a map is being forgotten," he said. "The rush hour might go from one to three hours."

Probably best not to throw away your A to Z maps just yet.

Junking up the skies

6,500 The number of satellites that have been sent up since Sputnik.

400,000 The number of pieces of debris smaller than 10cm in orbit.

994 The number of operational satellites orbiting Earth.

3,000 The total number of satellites orbiting Earth (including those that are now defunct).

16,000 The number of pieces of debris larger than 10cm orbiting Earth in the area where most satellites are based.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Client IT Account Manager

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client IT Account Manager is ...

    Recruitment Genius: Windows Server Engineer - Compute Engineer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Compute Engineer role also ...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line IT Support / Senior Engineer / Support Analyst

    £24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor