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Innovation

Viruses invade Japan's space agency

Information about a cargo-transportation program for the International Space Station (ISS) may have been leaked from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) after it was discovered that one of its computers was infected with two viruses.
Written by Michael Lee, Contributor on

Information about a cargo-transportation program for the International Space Station (ISS) may have been leaked from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) after it was discovered that one of its computers was infected with two viruses.

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An H-II Transfer Vehicle on display at the Tsukuba Space Center.
(HTV Kounotori @ Tsukuba Space Center image by uchi neko, CC BY 2.0)

According to a statement from JAXA, the agency became suspicious of activity on one of its computers on 11 August, and on 17 August discovered that it was infected with a virus. While JAXA removed the virus, it noticed that it was still "displaying abnormalities", and continued to monitor it.

On 6 January, it discovered another virus, and realised that it was gathering information from the computer. Further investigation revealed that it had leaked information sometime between 6 July and 11 August.

JAXA said it was possible that stored mail addresses, system log-in information accessed from the compromised computer and specification and operation information about the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) program may have been leaked.

HTVs are a series of unmanned spacecraft launched from Earth to deliver resupplies to the ISS.

However, any concerns over hackers having remote control over an operating HTV are misplaced — there are currently no HTVs in space. After delivering supplies, they are loaded with waste, de-orbited and then burnt up in the atmosphere. The most recent HTV to be launched, HTV-2, was designed to bring up to 6 tonnes of supplies, such as food, clothing and spare parts, to the ISS. It completed its mission at the end of March last year, and was only in space for 67 days.

JAXA has already ensured that the passwords on systems that were accessible to the infected computer have been changed, is undertaking an investigation into the scale of the virus' damage and impact and is checking all of its other computer terminals for further infections.

While there are no HTVs in space at the moment, the next HTV is due for launch soon. HTV-3 will be launched on 26 June 2012.

Even if security concerns result in JAXA being unable to monitor the HTV program by this date, it is possible that it could hand the mission over to NASA. On 11 March last year, a magnitude-9 earthquake, more widely known for being responsible for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, also damaged the ground-control centre in Tsukuba, disrupting monitoring operations for HTV-2's mission. This mission was handed over to NASA at the time, until JAXA could later resume operations.

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