Cybersecurity Implications of Europe’s Return to Accessing Space

After four years of schedule slip, Ariane 6 is expected to launch for the first time on July 9, 2024. Prior to the development of this launch vehicle, the European Space Agency (ESA) did not have any domestic launchers available outside of private companies developing significantly smaller vehicles. In the meantime, they have had to rely on SpaceX rockets (Castel, 2024). While SpaceX is based in the United States, a longstanding ally to most countries in ESA, many of these countries have differed in their responses to increasing geopolitical tensions in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other regions, and the rise in extremist governments worldwide could also weaken alliances (International Astronautical Federation, n.d.; “United States Allies 2024”, n.d.). As a result, the likelihood of disruption to one or more key alliances involving ESA member states and the US is heightened, which would increase the risk of either ESA members or the US posing cyber threats to each other. Reducing ESA’s dependence on SpaceX is then beneficial for ESA in case of a breakdown of relevant alliances.

While the risk to cyber systems from allowing access to SpaceX and the US has been reduced, intracontinental tensions remain, and the attack surface available on Ariane 6 may be cause for concern as well. For example, flight data can contain sensitive and valuable information, and as Castel notes, Ariane 6 has thousands of sensors. The quantity of data is so vast that five months have been allotted to analyzing the data before a second flight can even happen (Castel, 2024). Disrupting data from one of those sensors before or during the flight could falsely signal to flight software or the operations team that a drastic action such as aborting mid-flight is needed, causing the loss of an extremely valuable launch vehicle and its data at a time when ESA needs it most. On the other hand, a bad actor with access to some sensors onboard the vehicle could falsely mask anomaly data, leaving the operations team and software in the dark regarding critical errors. Such a vast network of sensors requires safeguards in the software and amongst operators to ensure that only authorized users and processes can read or write sensor data. Additionally, redundancy should be used to protect the outcome of the mission from one erroneous reading, whether it is from a bad actor or other cause. 

Given the disastrous first flight of Ariane 5 in 1996, the four years of schedule delays leading up to this launch, and the volume of launches already under contract for Ariane 6, a project management and systems engineering approach that does not cut corners is crucial to protect the launch vehicle (Castel, 2024). Those working on the project may feel pressure to finish and verify it as soon as possible, and that pressure can lead to inadequate consideration of and protection against cyber threats. Despite any pressure from delays or excitement for the impending first launch, the project must prioritize cybersecurity.

Looking to the future, Castel discusses increased private competition, supported by ESA and member nations, amongst small launch vehicle companies. Many of these companies have aspirations to scale up to larger and more capable launch vehicles (Castel, 2024). While those goals are worthy of support, those companies must also make their own plans to handle data from thousands of sensors and other challenges faced by heavy launch vehicles. Additionally, while competition can promote innovation, care should be taken to ensure that the leaders are on top due to superior technology rather than disrupting competitors’ businesses. The number of potential threats is already high in an international alliance like ESA, and introducing new actors into the space further complicates matters. 

Ariane 6 represents a major step forward in reducing ESA dependence on the US and SpaceX, but its complex architecture provides potential threats with many opportunities to attack the launch vehicle. Additionally, tensions between member states may erupt with destructive consequences. The pressure imposed by contracts and the delayed schedule must not interfere with protecting valuable assets. Finally, in looking toward the future, ESA should ensure that both public and private organizations conduct aerospace development efforts in a positive, growth-focused manner to reduce incentives and opportunities for bad actors to interfere with the return of European access to space. 


Castel, F. (2024, June 24). Europe aims to end space access crisis with Ariane 6’s inaugural launch. SpaceNews. 

International Astronautical Federation (n.d.). European Space Agency (ESA). IAF. 

United States Allies 2024. (n.d.).