Digital twins, satellites and cybersecurity

The United States and our allies are increasingly dependent on unfettered access to space. However, it has become abundantly clear that our space systems have significant cybersecurity vulnerabilities that our adversaries are eager to exploit.

Earlier this year, William Akoto wrote about the growing constellations of satellites operated by private industry, led by SpaceX, Blue Origin and others: “If hackers were to take control of these satellites, the consequences could be dire. On the mundane end of scale, hackers could simply shut satellites down, denying access to their services. Hackers could also jam or spoof the signals from satellites, creating havoc for critical infrastructure. This includes electric grids, water networks and transportation systems.”

Space Policy Directive 5, recently issued by the White House, notes that “cybersecurity principles and practices that apply to terrestrial systems also apply to space systems” and that we must integrate these principles and practices into every phase of the space system life cycle.

SPD-5 is charting the right course toward assuring our cybersecurity in the space domain. This article highlights the unique vulnerabilities of space systems and how innovative solutions like “digital twins” can help us protect systems in orbit today and design more secure ones for the future.

Cyberattacks on space systems — comprised of satellites, ground control stations, and user terminals (e.g., GPS receivers) — are appealing to nation-states, criminal groups, hackers and other bad actors. It’s a tremendous opportunity to breach data and disrupt operations in a low-risk way with a low cost of execution. The different components that make up space systems each come with their own set of cyber vulnerabilities, the ground segment in particular.

Some space systems were built with speed to market rather than cybersecurity in mind. In contrast, for traditional defense-focused space systems, a slower design and development process has introduced vulnerabilities as well. Space systems operating today may have taken a full 20 years to go from paper to launch and lack the capabilities to recognize or respond to today’s cyberthreats. Space systems are increasingly interconnected — a malicious attack can easily spread from a single point of vulnerability in a ground station to the satellites.

Cybersecurity in space systems has struggled to keep pace with the rapid evolution of threat actors and exploits. Given these challenges, how can organizations with space systems stay ahead of cyberthreats and protect their missions and users?

The older approach of paper-based assessments has significant limitations, like the inability to duplicate reactions to all possible scenarios. At the other end of the spectrum, full-scale replicas are expensive and time-consuming to build.

In the middle is the “digital twin” concept — a virtual mirror model that synchronizes a physical object with a cyber representation. With this approach, organizations can test a satellite in different scenarios to identify vulnerabilities and develop protection strategies, even before the satellite is built.

A still from a U.S. Space Force recruiting ad shows a service member in what appears to be an astronaut helmet. (U.S. Space Force)

One specific project that demonstrated digital twins’ strengths and capabilities: testing Air Force GPS space systems for vulnerabilities after the passage of Section 1647 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.

Starting with a model-based system engineering review of thousands of pages of design documents, we built a digital replica of critical GPS Block IIR satellite components launched between 1987 and 2004 that ran on a single laptop with lightweight applications.

Our digital twin created the foundation for a flexible cyber test bed — a suite of scalable software applications to demonstrate and validate cyber vulnerabilities and protection strategies as the system is designed or modified. The test bed can connect with assets beyond the network to generate data, provide war-gaming support and explore attack scenarios.

We need this flexibility and functionality for future space system protection. The next generation of satellites will encounter more extreme service conditions and increased, simultaneous cyberattack vectors over longer periods of time. To respond to these challenges, these space systems will need increasingly complex designs, and with such complexity comes potentially greater vulnerability to cyberattacks and threats.

Digital twins and model-based system engineering approaches can strengthen security throughout the acquisition and sustainment phases. Use them to:

  • Develop system requirements and analyze design trades.
  • Create test scenarios for requirements clarification and reference systems.
  • Simulate threats, anomalies and impacts without risk to critical infrastructure.
  • Assess the impact of new threats or operational scenarios on an on-orbit system design.

What can space system acquisition professionals, developers and operators learn here? Digital twins offer an innovative approach that can streamline and strengthen the testing and design process of our space assets. They can also provide insights on as-built systems and enable the buydown of risks across the space system life cycle, enabling affordability across the entire system life cycle. Now is the time to leverage their capabilities, to ensure that the space infrastructure so vital to our security and American way of life has the protection it requires.

Kevin Coggins is a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he leads the company’s positioning, navigation and timing business.

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