There are more than 2,000 satellites orbiting Earth right now. And there are about to be a lot more. But what does this mean? Endless entertainment. Non-stop communications. And unlimited information. Everything you need, in an instant.
In 1729, Sir Isaac Newton theorized that if you loaded a cannon on top of a high mountain at the North Pole, and fired it at precisely the right height, angle, and speed, the cannonball would enter Earth’s orbit and be able to circle the entire planet without falling back down.
Of course, Newton’s hypothesis was centuries before the advent of space-bound rockets. But it was his experiments that eventually lead to Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, being launched on October 4th, 1957.
Since Sputnik, it’s almost like humans have become addicted to satellites. But how couldn’t we?
It’s thanks to satellites that we have television, GPS, accurate weather and climate monitoring, instant credit card authorization, and much, much more. By 2025, up to 1,100 satellites could be launching every year.
But as our reliance on satellites grows, so do the risks. There are a lot of smart people in the world, and not all of them act with the best intentions. If hackers hijacked every satellite, could they effectively shut down our planet?
Hacking satellites isn’t as uncommon as you might think. And it’s not that hard to do. That’s because a lot of satellites have limited memory and processing capabilities, so they don’t use data encryption.
What’s more, the satellites are made with off-the-shelf technology, to make production costs cheaper. Hackers can analyze the parts used, so they understand how the satellites are made.
Vulnerabilities like these might explain how hackers were able to get control of the Terra EOS satellite for 9 minutes in 2008. Though the hackers never moved the satellite, they could have easily caused a lot of damage.
If hackers got control of all our satellites, it probably wouldn’t take us very long to notice. They could jam all our signals, and wreak havoc on our infrastructure.
Your TV and radio would stop working, and so would electric grids, transportation systems, and water networks. GPS and remote communication systems would fail, making it harder to organize a coordinated response, while also scaring the [beep] out of every pilot in the sky!
If the hackers had militant ambitions, they’d have control over every armed drone in flight. That could be quite a big arsenal. Some estimates predict that 2,000 attack drones will be purchased worldwide within the next decade.
The internet wouldn’t cut out immediately, but we’d notice a gradual slowdown before it ground to a halt. Any computerized systems would need to be switched to manual back-up systems.
Amid the chaos, governments would have to act fast to implement emergency measures, since communications, transportation, power, and computer systems would be severely disrupted. But what kind of emergency measures could we fall back on, when there was nothing to prevent hackers from hijacking our satellites in the first place?
Despite our growing reliance on satellites, there aren’t any cybersecurity standards for satellites, and there is no worldwide governing body that regulates and ensures cybersecurity. Even if the standards were developed, there are no mechanisms put in place to enforce them.
So for now, it looks like it’s every man for themself. Don’t worry, it doesn’t fall on you to protect the world’s satellites from hackers, but you are responsible for your personal online protection.
At the end of the day, the more we rely on online activity and other satellite-powered technologies, the more we need to protect them. Satellite operators can have their communications hop between frequencies, so it’s harder for a hacker to jam their communications.
We might also want to build satellites with tougher materials to prevent electromagnetic interference. This would protect them from cyberattacks and from natural phenomena. It is much more expensive to produce secure satellites, but I’d say the upfront cost is worth it compared to the consequences we’ve just mentioned.
While satellites have been hacked thousands of times in the past, it would be a pretty big undertaking to hijack over 2,000 satellites at once. So while this scenario may be unlikely, it doesn’t mean that we’re out of the woods when it comes to satellite disasters. There are still objects like asteroids and space debris to worry about.
- “How Satellites Work”. Garden, Home, HowStuffWorks, Science, Space, and Exploration. 2000. Howstuffworks.
- “What Are Satellites Used For?”. 2020. Union Of Concerned Scientists.
- “The number of satellites orbiting Earth could quintuple in the next decade”. 2020. MIT Technology Review. .
- “What would happen if all satellites stopped working?”. Hollingham, Richard. 2020. bbc.com.
- “Want to Hack a Satellite? It Might Be Easier Than You Think”. 2020. PCMAG.