The World is Blind in Space, and Nobody is Talking About It
Right now, hundreds of thousands of objects are zipping around the Earth at orbital velocity. Some of them are satellites, some are dead rockets, and some are merely debris. Most of them, however, are never tracked by anyone. And many of them present a natural hazard, or potentially a deliberate threat, to our assets.
“Nobody is able to achieve persistent monitoring of everything all the time,” says Moriba Jah, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “So there’s gaps. That’s part of the paranoia of the US government.”
The united States controls a sophisticated network of radars and telescopes on the ground, but the radars don’t capture everything, and the telescopes mostly work at night. Moreover, assuming they do track something, their measurements are generally inaccurate. “It’s like taking glasses and rubbing a Hershey bar on them,” Jah says.
A ground sensor tracking a satellite in low Earth orbit is probably off by about 100 m, and that estimate gets worse the farther away the satellite is. “Altogether, we really don’t have that great data,” says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at Secure World Foundation, an NGO that promotes space sustainability and security. “I think I would give it a four out of 10.”
Out of the hundreds of thousands of objects orbiting the Earth, the US military only tracks around 24-25,000. The rest are less than 10 cm large, or roughly the size of a softball, too small for the sensors to pick up. But even a quarter flying at 17,000 mph can damage a satellite, and without the data to know where it is, space becomes a hostile environment.
“We can’t avoid collisions unless we know not only where stuff is, but where it is going,” says Weeden.
An object’s location and trajectory are only one piece of the picture, though. We may be able to roughly measure an object’s orbit, but that tells us nothing about who owns it, what it can do, or what its purpose is. This problem Jah calls “the identity crisis.” With no knowledge of an object’s characteristics, there is no way to distinguish a shard of metal from a functional satellite. “So in a Shakespearean sense,” Jah says,” debris or not debris? That is the question.”
As of now, the US military publically catalogues about 21,900 objects in space. That leaves roughly 3-4000 objects larger than 10 cm that are being tracked, but whose identities are unknown. To Jah, this blind spot represents not just a mild concern, a security threat.
“The danger is misinterpretation, miscommunication, and escalation of behavior in space,” he says. “It’s like, ah, here’s this Chinese satellite that’s coming close to my American satellite. Why are they doing this? Are they trying to spy on me or hurt my satellite?”
Weeden expresses more skepticism about the threat of nefarious activity. “I think that’s highly unlikely,” he says. “There are some people who are worried about that, but it’s much more about avoiding collisions… There’s just no examples of somebody destroying someone else’s satellite. You could get a lot of the same effects just by jamming the signals, or interfering with them on the ground.”
Regardless of the likelihood of an attack, the mere uncertainty creates tension. “You don’t have continuous supervision,” Jah says. “So when an anomaly happens, it’s hard to tell whether it was something intentional or an act of God.” To remedy this, he prescribes what is known as a knowledge graph.
“A knowledge graph is a graph database with an ontology or schema put on top of it, semantically linking things together,” he explains. “It facilitates big data analytics.” To translate that into English, a knowledge graph is a framework that links together different kinds of data to see how they are related. For example, it could take satellite locations, ownerships and capabilities, then connect them all together to see who owns which satellite and what it can do. Each piece of information is only somewhat helpful on its own, but infinitely useful put together.
“That’s the Holy Grail,” Weeden says. “There’s this whole other suite of stuff you could be collecting data on that gives you a much better picture of what something is and what it’s doing.” So the question is: why has nobody linked that data together yet?
Part of the answer has to do with antiquated technology. “software development is one area where the Pentagon consistently falls on its ass,” Weeden says. “To give an example, when I was in the Air Force in 2004, we got told, ‘we’re going to train you to use these two computer systems, but don’t get attached because they’re getting replaced with something else in 2005.’ When I left in 2007, we were still using those two systems. And as far as I know, they’re still being used operationally.”
Another part of the answer has to do with a lack of international cooperation. “There’s not a lot of incentives to make the data available,” Weeden explains. Governments don’t want to disclose how much they know or expose operational secrets, and private companies don’t want to publicize anomalies with their assets because it might trigger insurance markets or cause bad PR. There are some commercial sellers of data, but they won’t give up their property without compensation.
Space is becoming increasingly militarized, and if states want to enforce arms controls in that domain, they will first need to monitor it. “There’s no global pool of observational data,” Jah laments. And an effective regulatory regime in space will be nearly impossible without it. As it stands, the vast expanse outside the Earth’s atmosphere, despite being vital to our internet, telecommunications, GPS, and countless other technologies, is the new wild west.
As space debris accumulates and more objects are launched into orbit, the environment is becoming more complex. State and private actors alike have been less than scrupulous with properly disposing of junk assets. The US, Russia, China and India have conducted over 70 anti-satellite tests since 1959, with 20 occuring since 2005, and blowing up satellites unsurprisingly creates a lot of debris.
International regulators can’t control the growth of debris until they can hold culprits accountable. And that, Jah says, is a very difficult task without knowledge graphs. “Who’s tracking this? Who’s making the links? Nobody’s doing that,” he says. “The world’s f#@%!&%g blind to this! It’s crazy.”
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In other off-planet news, more details have emerged about India’s Moon Mission. As reported by India Today, the lander flipped upside during a planned rotation 11 minutes before it was due to touch down, inverting thrusters – forcing the lander downward.
Communications were lost with Vikram during this time and have not been re-established since.
Further out in the frontier, China’s giant (FAST) telescope is picking up mysterious signals from deep space. The biggest discovery of Fast Radio Bursts to date. With such an active source of intergalactic pulses, Chinese astronomers have partnered with 10 other observatories around the world to focus attention on this region of the cosmos. A great story about global collaboration to study the Universe.
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NASA Cyber Security Incidents Rise Post Budget Cuts
According to a recent article published by Forbes, cyber security incidents at NASA rose by 366% in 2019, according to a report from the Office of Management and Budget, and analyzed by AtlasVPN. This all comes after a $3.1 million decrease in NASA’s cyber security budget from 2018.
There was a 638% rise in “Improper Usage” incidents. These accounted for almost 91% of the overall increase. This is even more alarming after 2018’s very public hacking at JPL, when an authorized Raspberry Pi was connected to their servers and became an entry point for hackers to access to NASA’s Deep Space Network array of radio telescopes.
I spoke with Jim Adams, former Deputy Chief Technologist for Kennedy Space Center and 30 year NASA veteran for a bit more insight.
He said when if comes to cutting cyber security budgets for any federal department it’s like “Opening a new bank and only using half of the (security) guards.” (JA)
Hackers will come up with “ever more creative ways to gain access to NASA’s system.” (JA) So OMB and Congress need to increase cyber security budgets so that they can stay ahead of the threats.’
“Lack of vigilance is a real risk,” (JA) and assuring personnel do not become complacent is vital to decreasing ‘improper usage.’ While at the same time the sprawl of NASA’s infrastructure is so large, that itself can contribute to the problem, as certain equipment becomes a liability before it can be replaced.
Assuring a robust cyber security budget would help combat even these physical problems.
But Adams warns it is not just NASA’s cyber security the public should be alarmed about. “All agencies are at risk.” (JA) Problems in one agency’s cyber security can be the canary in the coalmine for the entire system.
According to a 2012 Inspector General’s report, NASA’s “connectivity with outside organizations… such as educational institutions and research facilities – presents cybercriminals with a larger target than that of many other Governmental agencies.” ‘
And a 2018 IG report pointed to how the agency’s reliance on the Global Supply chain can “pose a significant risk as foreign-developed or manufactured technology may be counterfeit or compromised” which could unsuspectingly install malware used to steal precious IP and deliver it to our competitors. Or it could be used to access the accounts of some of the most privilege users thus giving hackers access to most of NASA’s network.
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Hi, I am Dr. Sian Proctor and I am an analog astronaut, explorer, and geoscience professor. I am passionate about using my space to inspire those within my reach. I help others develop leadership skills and opportunities through professional development and making connections. I inspire and motivate people to believe in themselves and what they can achieve. I believe in creating a can-do mind shift by helping individuals discover their strengths and develop a flow for peak performance.
My leadership knowledge comes from amazing professional development experiences such as living in a NASA funded Mars simulation for 4 months, a moon simulation for 2-weeks, and surviving a Discovery Channel apocalyptic reality tv show for 2 months. I am currently the science demonstration expert on the Science Channel’s show Strange Evidence. I was also featured in the PBS series called Genius by Stephen Hawking. I’m in Episode 2: Are We Alone where I learn how to search for intelligent life in the universe. I have also been featured in the Cox Communication Show called the STEM Journals. I am a NASA Solar System Ambassador, was an astronomy in Chile education ambassador, was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 2017 Teacher at Sea, and a PolarTREC teacher to Barrow, Alaska. I was even a finalist for the 2009 NASA Astronaut Program. I have traveled and taught around the world, I’ve done education outreach at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and Goddard Spaceflight Center. I completed my last sabbatical at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute developing their science of disasters curriculum. I am a geoscience professor at South Mountain Community College (SMCC) in Phoenix, Arizona. I have a B.S. in Environmental Science, a M.S. in Geology, and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. I am also a faculty developer and open educational resources coordinator that specializes in helping others network and engage in professional development. My areas of expertise are leadership, networking, professional development, STEAM education, sustainability, resiliency, teaching with technology, inspiration, motivation, adventure education, disaster science, and diversity. I hope you will consider me for your next speaking opportunity.