A report, by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, released on Friday states Chinese hackers gained access to and were able to control two US satellites on four separate occasions, with one event discovered eight months later.
The report details that gaining control or destroying ground-based systems that communicate with satellites are “the most effective way of seizing space supremacy”. The report continues, “Chinese military theorists take a holistic view of counter space operations,” taking into consideration and advocating information-based attacks that may be reversible, and attacks that include, “ground-based systems, space-based systems, and communication links”.
The report details the vulnerabilities that Chinese hackers exploited stating, “Satellites from several U.S. government space programs utilize commercially operated satellite ground stations outside the United States, some of which rely on the public Internet for data access and file transfers”.
The report describes four incidents that occurred between October 2007 and October 2008. In two cases, hackers gained control of the satellites taking “all steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands.” The hackers had control of the satellites ranging between 2 and 12 minutes. In one case, hackers were not detected until eight months later, while investigating interference in the control of a satellite that hackers were controlling.
The satellites involved are Landsat-7 and Terra EOS AM-1 – both of which are earth observation satellites managed by NASA and the US Geological Survey.
The implications of gaining control of satellites are broad and “could allow an attacker to damage or destroy the satellite”. In addition, “a high level of access could reveal the satellite’s capabilities or information, such as imagery, gained through its sensors” and could lead to the capability to “compromise other terrestrial or space-based networks used by the satellite”.
The report concludes that “China appears to seek space supremacy” by using “space for the purposes of force enhancement”, and “they seek the capabilities to deny an adversary the use of space in the event of a conflict”.
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report is available on the USCC website.