What to Know About Space Security

Space is increasingly important to the planet’s infrastructure – but it is also a potential battleground.

Explainer Published 27 September 2016 Updated 10 May 2023 2 minute READ

Space is a vital part of national and international infrastructures. Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, humanity has been using space for the purposes of communications, monitoring our environment, tracking the planets in the solar system and the stars in the galaxies, proving data for global positioning, navigation and timing, and conducting vital scientific experiments. We are increasingly dependent on the global space-based satellite constellations for the workings of the national and international infrastructure such as the piloting of aircrafts, navigation at sea, military manoeuvres, financial transactions and internet and phone communications.

Two recent developments in China – the launch of a ‘quantum satellite’ designed to transmit hack-proof keys from space and its loss of control of the space station Tiangong-1 – highlight the security challenges, and dangers, space presents. What are the key vulnerabilities, and how can the international community create a secure a peaceful space environment?

  1. Space is ‘congested, contested and competed’. Almost every country has either their own satellites or a stake in space, through meteorological and communications space-based assets. There are approximately 1,100 satellites in orbit and space debris – the results of collisions and defunct satellites – is a serious problem. Throughout the Cold War, the US and the USSR developed anti-satellite weaponry and tested them against their own satellites, creating debris that remains in space today.
  2. Space is becoming more accessible (at least for satellites). Light, mini satellites (500 kg), micro-satellites (10-100 kg), nano-satellites (1-10 kg), pico-satellites (0.1 and 1 kg) and femto-satellites (10 and 100 g) are all in development. Launched in multiple satellite payloads and deployed in formations with larger ‘mother’ satellites and ‘satellite swarms’, these new satellites will transform the accessibility of space. They can be used by the military, commercial operations and by ordinary citizens for communications, signals intelligence, environmental monitoring, geo-positioning, observation and targeting. They could also be used as weapons in themselves. They will have all the capabilities of the current satellites but they will be cheaper to make and easier to launch – and harder to track.
  3. Space weaponry is a serious problem. In 2007, China used a ground-launched missile to destroy an old weather satellite, and a year later, the US shot down a low-orbit defunct spy satellite, using a missile launched from a warship in the Pacific. Earlier this year, Russia carried out successful flight test of the A–235 Nudol direct ascent anti-satellite missile. Without an international legal framework to prevent the weaponization of outer space, the destabilization of the space environment is continuing apace and the placement of weapons in space seems likely in the coming years.
  4. Communications and navigation systems are highly vulnerable to cyber attacks. Cyber attacks on satellites are already a reality. Global navigational satellite systems such as the US GPS and the European Galileo provide highly accurate positional and timing signals that are vital for the planet’s communications networks that can be affected by jamming and spoofing attacks. Our recent research paper ‘Space, the Final Frontier for Cybersecurity?’ considers the risks associated with cyber attacks, including taking physical control of satellites, such as manoeuvring a satellite so that it collides with another satellite, ‘decaying’ or lowering its orbit so that it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up or deliberately overexposing a satellite’s solar panels to highly energetic ionizing solar radiation, causing irreparable damage.
  5. Creating a secure, peaceful space environment is possible. Although there has been no progress on space security issues at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva since 1994, there have been a number of recent international efforts. Space debris mitigation guidelines have been developed at the UN in Vienna, a UN group of governmental experts on outer space transparency and confidence-building in outer space activities reported in 2013, and the European Union has established an initiative for an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. A light-touch, international, multi-stakeholder response is required for the cyber security challenges of space – a meeting next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the global Outer Space Treaty would be a good start.