Space Cyber Defense: An Adaptive, Proactive Approach

Understanding the Vulnerabilities

“For space cyber defense, you need to understand the mission, the ecosystem, and what threats make this environment different—whether in the systems themselves or the processes used to manage those systems,” says Brad Stone, Booz Allen's chief information officer. For example:

Mission—Ensure precision. Many defense and intelligence space missions revolve around gathering information using geographical coordinates. Therefore, location matters. 

> Ecosystem—Understand each layer. These operational technology systems include satellites, ground systems, control centers, and connected devices. “You need to check every connection from the ground station to the space layer,” says Kevin.

> Threats—Look from the ground up. Ground systems are the easiest for an adversary to attack—for example, jamming (OT attack) or pinging an uplink antenna (IT attack). Unencrypted public signals like GPS are especially vulnerable.

> Outsource with caution. Although cloud providers work to scale security, system owners must still address the diverse vulnerabilities of every system layer, from access controls to satellite downlinks.

> Plan for breach. “You want to design not just for functionality, but resiliency—and that means redundancy,” Kevin says. System designers should include elements like:

  • Reprogrammable payloads—to mitigate future threats 
  • Backup equipment—for example, a clock in case a satellite’s GPS connection is compromised
  • Protection at every phase—for example, a SpaceX rocket carrying dozens of Starlink satellites has extra complexities at launch

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Establishing the Framework

Advanced protection strategies begin with open frameworks, the foundation of flexible systems. 

Open Systems Architecture

Migrating to open systems architecture provides an entry point for next-generation engineering at the intersection of cybersecurity and space security. Through open standards and reusable components, open frameworks allow organizations to:  

  • Modernize legacy systems effectively
  • Build security into new data platforms efficiently
  • Establish continuous innovation while owning the technical baseline

IT/OT Best Practices

As a blend of IT and OT, space systems need cyber protections similar to that of industrial control systems and other operational technology—for example, automated processes. They need safeguards mandated for all government IT systems, such as:

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Designing Cyber Strategies: MBSE and Threat Libraries

To thwart adversaries in the high-stakes domain of space, cyber specialists must go beyond general principles to mitigate the vulnerabilities of that specific system.

The next generation of space systems needs to be developed with cybersecurity in mind from Day One. That’s where model-based systems engineering (MBSE) comes in. MBSE includes customized specialties such as reverse engineering and digital twins.

Reverse Engineering: Discover Vulnerabilities 

“For years, we’ve been reverse-engineering legacy systems—for example, launch systems from 40 years ago that never had an as-built [contractor drawing submitted at project completion],” says Steve Bolish, a cyber director in our Colorado Springs office. 

“We decompose a system into its parts so the military has an understanding of how to modernize it. And it allows us to identify built-in vulnerabilities so they can mitigate them—and replace legacy systems with modern, secure, sustainable architectures.” 

Digital Twins: Prepare for the Unknown

“We can build a digital twin of the whole system rapidly—ground control, uplink, and space vehicle,” Kevin says. “With digital twins, you can learn to manage in the unknown.”

Once the virtual model is built, cyber specialists conduct vulnerability scans and penetration tests. They can then: 

  • Illuminate potential vulnerabilities
  • Develop mitigations to pre-empt attack
  • Prioritize by severity of weakness and complexity of mitigation

Our teams maintain a custom threat hunt library which we leverage along with client data to supply a continually updated reference. This allows cyber specialists to build a picture of what’s normal, identify anomalies, and continually refine the system’s threat posture.

Applying the NIST Cybersecurity Framework Using MBSE 

Space cybersecurity can be mapped to the NIST framework for managing cyber risk. Digital twins can be used in all five functions, regardless of the organization’s cyber maturity level. Here are a few examples:

  • Identify – Assess vulnerabilities via scans and penetration tests, informing the risk management strategy 
  • Protect – Mitigate risks discovered in simulations (update software, change processes)
  • Detect – Monitor continuously to discover anomalies, continually refining the threat library so weaknesses can be found and pre-emptively fixed 
  • Respond – Operate using backup strategies developed and tested via the virtual model
  • Recover – Ideally with little or no impact to service, employ plans tested through simulation; leverage insights to prevent future attacks 

Leading the Edge of Space Cyber Defense

As adversaries develop new methods of attack, we invent new ways to protect. Here are some concepts we’re taking to cyber’s leading edge.

Space Cyber Test Range

Our PNT teams are working to create a simulated ecosystem depicting space assets in orbit. A digital twin can then be linked to a that system’s physical ground station and operations center or digital representations of those elements. This will accelerate threat detection and mitigation across the system lifecycle.

AI at the Edge

Advances in analytics and cloud capabilities enable AI to play an increasing role.

  • AI can be applied at multiple points—to add insights during data ingestion, analysis, and dissemination.
  • Applied at the edge, close to the device, AI enables immediate insights.

For example, “Ground stations can be upgraded to act as a smart sensor, ingesting and analyzing data as it streams in rather than sending low-level metrics to a data lake,” Brad says. 

Smart systems will advance the mission as well as protect it. “With AI at the point of the sensor, you can know you’re getting a valid signal. That would allow decisions to be made at the speed of the data—a major goal for JADC2,” he points out.

Integrating Systems Engineering, Cyber, and MBSE

“Traditional systems engineers envision separate tracks for systems engineering, MBSE, and cybersecurity. We integrate it all,” says Steve Bolish, a cyber director in our Colorado Springs office. 

“Clients get an ‘aha!’ moment when we point out that the same documents can be used for all three tracks.” Conducting the activities concurrently delivers advantages such as:

  • The digital model can be tested along with the built system.
  • Threat analysis can be run earlier.
  • Fewer documents are required.
  • Development timelines are shortened.

“Creating a parallel path for systems integration, cyber, and MBSE truly gives the client a build that’s faster, cheaper, and better,” Steve says.

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Enter the Future of Space Cyber Defense

When clients engage us to secure space systems, they know they’ll receive state-of-the-art cybersecurity from a leader in the field. Here’s a snapshot of what we provide:  

Intelligence and Defense Understanding

  • We’ve supported some of the nation’s most sensitive defense and intelligence missions. Trusted by all six of the Department of Defense’s cyber commands, we are the only company to hold every U.S. government elite cyber accreditation.
  • Reverse-engineering legacy systems makes us experts in spotting and mitigating vulnerabilities.
  • We put our clients’ mission first, using open standards that put the government in control.
  • AI-powered analytics allows for automated protection and detection.

Digital Engineering and Agile Development

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