The Cyber-ASAT: On the Impact of Cyber Weapons in Outer Space


Satellites have revolutionized military strategy and the dynamics of national power. However, satellites themselves are fragile and can be destroyed by even miniscule projectiles. Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASATs) which exploit this weakness have long been prophesied as the Achilles heel of space power; yet orbit has remained relatively peaceful for more than sixty years. As the threat of cyber attacks against space assets looms, the impact that cyberspace will have on stability in outer space is not well understood. This paper presents a strategic analysis of the impact of cyber weapons on three key stabilizing factors which have thus far contributed to peace in space. Based on this analysis, it contends that cyber-ASATs threaten the foundations of space’s longstanding stability due to their high accessibility, low attributability, and low risk of collateral damage. This conjecture is tested experimentally though the development of a simulated cyber-ASAT capability targeting one small component of satellite operations - space situational awareness data. By leveraging orbital simulations and genetic algorithms, we demonstrate the ability to artificially alter debris collision forecasts and cause direct harm to critical space systems without firing a single rocket. The attack method is tested in realistic simulations and shown to have a high success rate against realworld satellites of vital strategic importance. Our interdisciplinary approach unifies strategic analysis with technical experimentation to present the case that cyber-ASATs are not merely a distant theoretical threat, but a real and present danger to the balance of power in space.

In 2021 Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (NDSS)
James Pavur
James Pavur
Hacker, Engineer, Civic Technologist

My interests include cybersecurity, space, software engineering, and policy.