Launch on Demand: Changing the Pace of Attacks and Defense

Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One system (Source: Techcrunch)


Space Force is exploring the concept of launching satellites in a matter of days, not years. This capability allows the organization to respond to dynamic events, where satellites are shot down or damaged requiring immediate replacements. In 2023, Space Force is planning to award a contract to a commercial vendor to demonstrate and test this capability. The mission, code-named Victus Nox for “conquering the night”, is a combination of technology and mission operations advancements in order to deliver a payload into space within a 24-hours’ notice. This capability is also known as “tactically responsive space,” where planners speed up the front-end processes in executing a satellite launch. Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab, both small satellite launch companies, have both lobbied for this capability.

Typically, satellite launches operate in months and years. Shortening this timeframe to days has interesting implications for cybersecurity from both defensive and offensive standpoints. Essentially, the pace of change has shortened dramatically. On the defense side, this capability requires a lot of mission operational process improvements, cutting down planning time and other front-end work to a mission. Naturally, this shift constrains resources from a timing standpoint. For example, moving faster may mean a more compressed timeline to monitor potential threats, increasing complexity in digesting more data in less time leading up to a launch and payload insertion into space. On the offense side, I would expect bad actors to still focus more on attacking post-launch, given the more static environment and more time to attack. However, as attackers improve their offensive tactics, we could see a world where attackers focus more on the shorter timeframe between mission approval and launch. For example, attackers could rationalize that attacking targets on the ground is much easier than attacking targets in space. Thus, this could shift their focus to attack more dynamically, versus more conventional satellite launches.