The ESA wants you to hack its satellite for cybersecurity reasons

Applications to hack ESA's OPS-SAT satellite in a controlled environment are open until next month.
Written by Allison Murray, Staff Writer

The European Space Agency (ESA) is inviting people to hack a satellite in the name of cybersecurity. 

Applications are open through Feb. 18 to submit ideas on how someone would go about hacking the OPS-SAT satellite's payloads and/or experimental processing core, as well as how to detect and mitigate an attack. Potential hackers will have only six minutes of controlled communications to the OPS-SAT to demonstrate their idea.

"The in-built robustness of OPS-SAT makes it the perfect flying platform for ethical hackers to demonstrate their skills in a safe but suitably realistic environment," said Dave Evans, OPS-SAT Mission Manager, in a statement. "This is an exciting opportunity to engage with and learn from the best cybersecurity minds across Europe, using a platform specifically developed for learning lessons to improve our current and future missions." 

The ESA said that the OPS-SAT is the ideal spacecraft to use in an experiment like this since it has a flight computer that's 10 times more powerful than any other ESA spacecraft. 

In April, the top three finalists will be invited to attend the CYSAT conference in Paris to perform their hacking demo live. Specifically, the ESA is looking for ideas with a creative and realistic scenario, technical feasibility, and educational power.

The ESA said this "controlled hacking" method would help advance and further perfect cybersecurity both in space and on the ground. According to Cybersecurity Ventures, cybercrime costs the global economy about $1 trillion every year. That number is expected to increase to over $10 trillion by 2025, so controlled hacking like this is essential to understand how cybercriminals work and the new methods they impose on systems.

This isn't the first time a space agency has invited civilians to hack a spacecraft. In 2020, the US Air Force and the Defense Digital Service hosted a hacking contest where competitors were tasked with hacking a government satellite system. 

Of course, actual cybercriminals took control over the U.S.-German ROSAT X-Ray satellite in 1998, so controlled hacking events are essential to ensure continued cybersecurity in space.

"Space assets play a critical role in many services that we use daily on Earth, so it makes sense to protect them as much as we do for security-critical services on the ground," said Romain Lecoeuvre, CTO of YesWeHack, a Paris-based software testing crowdsourcing company, in a statement. "We're excited to bring our know-how around ethical hacking to this industry."

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