The Shift to Optical Space Communications Shifts Attack Surfaces for Space Systems

Changguang Satellite Technology (CGST) successfully demonstrated a space-to-ground optical communications link, boasting rates in excess of 10 Gbps. The test was carried out on CGST’s Jilin satellite, which is a part of a broader commercial imaging constellation.

The advent of optical space communication is a paradigm shift in the world of space communications. For governments, the narrow beam provides natural security along the space link, whereas RF beam spreading may provide unintended access for adversaries. Shantanu Gupta, of Aerospace Corporation, states “you may send the RF beam to the satellite you intend to, but behind it in the shadow there is another”. When considering the attack vectors for satellites and constellations, optical communications may force would-be attackers elsewhere in the system looking for vulnerabilities in the user segment or ground segment. This imposes a greater challenge on system administrators to ensure the sites and connections between the ground segment operations and ground entry points are secure and resilient to threats such as hacking, denial of service, of malware.

The Space Development Agency has committed to optical space-to-space and space-to-ground links as part of its Transport Layer network. This has sparked a race among startups and established companies in building optical space terminals to provide resilient and redundant global access to data in space. The next challenge will be properly storing and securing the data on the ground.