SpaceX Launch Sets Stage for Unique Cybersecurity Competition

SpaceX once again launched its Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket earlier this week.

by Faruk Imamovic
SpaceX Launch Sets Stage for Unique Cybersecurity Competition

In a dazzling display of technology, SpaceX once again launched its Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket earlier this week. This mission, known as CRS-28, involved not only a standard resupply run to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA, but also deployed several CubeSat satellites into low Earth orbit.

Among these, a particularly intriguing one named Moonlighter is set to play a pivotal role in an experimental hacking competition.

A Satellite for Cybersecurity

Moonlighter's purpose extends beyond the ordinary functions of a satellite.

Its unique mission is to elevate the cybersecurity landscape in space. In a first-of-its-kind initiative, the tiny satellite will form the nucleus of a competition scheduled for the annual Def Con conference in Las Vegas. Teams of cybersecurity experts will compete to infiltrate Moonlighter's orbital system software - a real-time test of their skills in an environment where failure has actual consequences.

The Hack-A-Sat competition has been conducted by the US Air Force for the past three years as a simulation, aiming to boost the efficacy of cybersecurity measures in the vast expanse of space. However, this year’s Def Con will break away from this tradition.

Teams will no longer be battling simulated systems, but instead, will have their mettle tested against the live Moonlighter satellite. Moonlighter’s development is the result of a collaboration between the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the US Space Systems Command.

Weighing in at just about 5 kilograms, this remarkable satellite stands alone as the only space object intentionally designed for hacking. “We’re really trying to wrap our heads around cybersecurity operations and how do we do cyber operations on a system that is starting to have a lot more commoditized hardware and software, but it’s also extremely remote,” said Aaron Myrick, senior project engineer at The Aerospace Corporation. “We can’t just go up there and flip the power switch or change a hard drive … it’s quite a challenging problem”.

Shoring Up Space Security

Moonlighter’s tasks are not just confined to providing a platform for the competition. It will be instrumental in conducting defensive cyber operations, fostering the development of cyber tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as in the verification and prevention of threats.

The top three performing teams in the competition will be rewarded with cash prizes of $50,000, $30,000, and $20,000, respectively. The need for such cybersecurity initiatives has become increasingly significant as the number of internet-connected satellites burgeons.

With a growing array of satellites providing internet services, concerns over the vulnerability of orbital systems are mounting. Moonlighter thus represents a beacon of hope in the quest for bolstering security in this new frontier.