Though it could be easily confused with a video game of the same name, or perhaps even a similarly named James Bond film, the Moonlighter promises to be a “hacking sandbox” for the development of cybersecurity technology as it will allow white hat hackers the ability to perform tests that could identify methods for preventing the hacking of satellite systems in space. The Moonlighter is set to enter Earth’s orbit as early as this Saturday when six miniature satellites – dubbed CubeSats – are set to launch on SpaceX’s 28th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station (ISS), where they will be deployed.
These include the Aerospace Corporation’s Moonlighter, which will be employed as part of the “Hack-A-Sat 4,” an annual challenge supported by Aerospace, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Space Force. Finalists will be provided the chance to hack the CubeSat in orbit during DEF CON, the annual convention for hackers that is held in August.
The Project Moonlighter satellite was modeled after the 3U CubeSats, which Space Systems Command has described as being “very small” and which are made up of various modules that weigh less than five pounds.
The Sandbox in Space
This hacking sandbox is a form of cyber security technology that allows hackers to perform tests that could identify methods for preventing the hacking of satellite systems in space. In the past, such cybersecurity testing for space applications was conducted in an Earth-based laboratory and utilized a variety of digital simulations.
This will now put the hacking sandbox in orbit.
Through this project, which is sponsored by the ISS National Laboratory and supported by Nanoracks, Aerospace will introduce the nation’s top cyber professionals to Moonlighter, which offers greater ability to fill gaps in cybersecurity testing in the space domain – thus truly combing outer space and cyberspace.
A Big Deal in a Space Package
Though the Moonlighter, which was developed in partnership with Space Systems Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory, can fit into one of the cubes that are just about a foot long and five inches on its side, it could offer big opportunities for cybersecurity research. The mid-size 3U nanosatellite will enable real-time cyber security testing in orbit for the first time, while it will allow cyber security professionals and some of the world’s best hackers to do space-based cyber experiments that are repeatable, realistic, and secure.
“We wanted to build something new from the ground up to fill gaps in cyber activities in space, where the vehicles to do cyber security testing in orbit have not existed,” explained Aaron Myrick, project leader for Aerospace. “When we say it’s a sandbox, Moonlighter is like a playground where we provide the space and the tools for professional hackers to perform cyber exercises and test out new technology. We hope this will lead to more cyber-resilient architectures for future space missions.”
In addition to Moonlighter, five student-developed CubeSats are also launching on SpaceX CRS-28. Those CubeSats are part of the Canadian CubeSat Project, which was also created to increase student engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and prepare the future space industry workforce.
SpaceX CRS-28 is targeted for launch no earlier than this Saturday, June 3 at 12:35 p.m. EDT, and the mission will also include multiple ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads.
Another Moon Shot
The Moonlighter is among several satellite-related missions now under the domain of the United States Space Force. The sixth and newest branch of the U.S. military recently announced that it had partnered with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to leverage the agency’s antennas for military space missions, while Space Force is also preparing a test to replace a damaged satellite in under 24 hours to guard against new threats.
The upcoming mission, dubbed Victus Nox (“conquer the night” in Latin), aims to test the Space Force’s capability to replace a damaged satellite should the need arise, and the service has already partnered with Firefly Aerospace and Millennium Space Systems on the initiative.
Earlier this year, Space Force took control of Wideband Global Satcom and Defense Satellite Communications System constellations of military satellites, while it also announced that a group of companies received a contract to demonstrate how new satellites could be built and existing ones modified with modules in orbit.
Ensuring those systems can be protected from cyberattacks clearly will help tie all these efforts together.