The Real Space Race is Just Beginning
Most people don’t know it yet, but we’re in the midst of a second space race, which many people in the field call New Space. Today, the field may be where the internet was in about 1992, the year after the Cold War ended when the web was still predominantly used by Defense Department employees, having stemmed from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. By the end of the decade, mass numbers of the people were using the internet to communicate, consume information, and transact business. Fortunes were made — and lost.
New Space will offer similar commercial breakthroughs that will distinguish the current space race from its predecessor in the 1960s. However, with reward comes risk. The new opportunities that are being created in space will also present potential danger for companies and governments that can be better managed with foresight and planning.
New Space is being driven by three primary factors.
First, there is the rapidly decreasing cost of lifting cargo to orbit. Take the new “Starship” being developed by SpaceX. The vehicle lifts off using SpaceX’s Super Heavy first stage, which produces twice as much thrust as the Saturn V rockets that launched Apollo astronauts to the moon. Starship’s payload is expected to exceed 100 metric tons, and the vehicle is reusable. Furthermore, SpaceX is not alone. The U.S. Air Force is seeking to leverage Starship and other new lifters in its Rocket Cargo program. There is a broad expectation that payload costs are about to drop significantly. The sheer scale of new space, which will involve thousands of satellites operating as networks, will requires automation and that increases cyber risk.
Satellites can also now be used by multiple consumers rather than just the organization that put the orbiter into space. In recent years, we have developed the encryption and key management necessary to allow not only completely secure data transmission from satellites, but encryption of the management of the satellite. This means that a consumer like the military could acquire imagery or other data from a satellite without its operator being privy to the data or even the assignment given to the satellite. In other words, the government could rent a commercial satellite to image a facility on earth and the pictures and specific mission would both be unknown to the commercial operator. This new arrangement creates the potential for far more utilization and revenue from commercial satellites. The line separating government and commercial silos is being blurred. Users and applications will go far beyond government. Previously, only a few of the world’s governments and biggest telecom companies could afford to operate satellites. That is changing.
The second big factor changing space is China. While numerically, the United States has vastly more commercial and government satellites in space, China is now second, with more satellites than Russia. Qualitatively, the Chinese are also in a strong position. Unclassified information is limited, but there is a widely held view that China has the will and possibly the means to blind the U.S. military by disabling its satellites early in a conflict.
A third factor is related: There has been a tacit acceptance of combat in the theater of space. While some of the earliest satellites have been used for military surveillance, putting weapons on satellites or targeting them from Earth is a newer development. In 1985, the United States tested a missile launched from an F-15 fighter plane, which destroyed an obsolete satellite. That was a first for a non-nuclear weapons system. In 2007, China successfully destroyed one of its own weather satellites with a missile, leaving a large field of debris in space. According to U.S. Space Command, Russia has tested anti-satellite missiles at least twice, in 2017 and 2020, and is developing an anti-satellite laser.
What to make of this? The clear implication is that space is about to get a lot more active and have a greater impact on business and government. Activities that impact businesses and our daily lives [such as] will be enabled by satellites, but also put at risk. The same computers and networks that are susceptible on Earth to hacking and disablement will be running the satellites on which we depend. In fact, this type of hacking may be a bigger threat to satellite networks than the exotic military systems used to disable satellites with kinetic force.
Now is the time to get space security right — before this exciting evolution and mass increase in space usage occurs. The U.S. government is finally requiring “zero-trust” principles in its systems and practices, which call for end-to-end encryption and software designed with security at its heart. We should extend these zero-trust features to space, which is set to be an area of rapid growth for business.
Jonathan Moore is the Chief Technology Officer or SpiderOak, a secure communications and space cybersecurity company.