In early April 2010, for the first time in history, an American geostationary satellite has gone  “rogue.”  The satellite, known as the Galaxy 15, is no longer responding to command and control communications from its legitimate owner, the Intelsat corporation.  Moreover, the satellite has left its assigned duty location and is now drifting uncontrolled through space.  While mis-orbiting and crashed satellites are not a new phenomenon, they usually cease functioning and stop transmitting when leaving orbit and hurtling towards earth.

What makes the Galaxy 15 case so unique, is that the satellite’s systems are fully functioning, with its telecommunications payload (the equipment that relays customer’s transmissions around the globe) fully “powered-on.” Despite 150,000-200,000 attempts to reboot system’s software, the satellite is refusing to accept commands from Earth.  The primary threat in this case is not from the satellite crashing directly into another satellite, but instead interfering with other global satellite signals.

In an ironic twist, the Galaxy 15 carries the signal for the SyFy science fiction television channel. As the satellite drifts closer and closer to other geostationary satellites, it may well “steal” their signals, disrupt their operations and prevent legitimate signal transmission to Earth.  In fact, between May 23 and June 7, 2010,  Galaxy 15 is projected to pass within half a degree of the AMC-11 satellite, which is operated by SES World Skies. As the two satellites pass close to each other, particularly during closest approach on 31 May and 1 June, signals from Galaxy 15’s still-active transponders could interfere with signals being broadcast by AMC-11.  While SES will attempt to maneuver the AMC-11 satellite to avoid interference, the likely result may be the theft of second satellite’s signal by the rogue Galaxy 15, preventing television viewers in Luxembourg from receiving their satellite signals.

So what’s next for the 1,892-kilogram Galaxy 15 “zombiesat?”  It will continue to travel out of orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.  Whether scientists will be able to regain control of the device is unknown.  In the meantime, the SES corporation is attempting to maneuver its AMC-11 out of the Galaxy 15’s path to avoid the possibility of interference.  NASA too is monitoring the situation, (see NASA’s tracking map of satellites orbiting Earth here).

Importantly, in addition to its satellite television duties, the Galax 15 also plays a role in supporting global positioning for air travel.  The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is leasing an L-band payload on Galaxy 15 to guide aircraft as part of a satellite-based navigation service that uses the U.S. GPS satellites in medium Earth orbit.  Intelsat is coordinating Galaxy 15 testing with the FAA as part of the FAA’s Geostationary Communications and Control Segment (GCCS) program that provides ground stations and broadcast services that, by using signals on the geostationary-orbit satellites, improve the accuracy of GPS signals for global aviation.

So where is the crime nexus?

First, let’s be clear–there is no evidence to prove there is any criminal activity associated with the Galaxy 15’s problems.  That said, we also do not know with certainty what happened to the satellite.  While many scientists are attributing the malfunction to a “possible solar flare,” there is no definitive proof that it was a solar flare that caused the resulting space havoc.  Could have been the result of a hacking?  Perhaps. Who knows?  How does one perform a computer forensics examination in space to definitely determine the cause?

While the supposition is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the underlying concerns are legitimate.  As demonstrated elsewhere, criminals and terrorists were capable of hacking into highly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) utilized by the United States military in Iraq.  Presumably these devices would have been protected by sophisticated encryption technologies and impervious to hacker attack,  yet insurgents were able to compromise the system using a $26 satellite piracy program known as skygrabber.  Why then would it be unfeasible for hackers or terrorists to do the same with geo-orbital satellites circling our planet?

What could criminals or terrorists do with a satellite were they control it?  In short, a lot.  Theoretically the satellites could be guided to crash back towards earth.  They could also be maneouvered to collide with any number of other satellites, including military and national defense systems.  What protection, if any, do satellites have from such attacks?  Are satellites capable of self-defense?  That answer is not clear, but defense systems may be quite limited given that the people that launch and build satellites don’t think like criminals.  Just as the scientists that built the UAV’s whose video systems were compromised did not ever consider the possibility that terrorist insurgents would be sophisticated enough to hack into their systems, so too is it highly unlikely that satellite manufacturers are prepared for a similar criminal hack attack.

As more and more satellites travel into space, launched by dozens and dozens of new and emerging companies, what steps, if any, are being taken to protect these devices from criminal hacking activities?  The fact is, now is the time to consider these issues, before a confirmed criminal hacking does indeed take place.  Just as manufacturers of computers and microprocessors never envisioned phishing attacks or botnets, so too may satellite manufacturers be blind to the potential security threats enabled through the widespread use of their technologies.  Unless some level of public scrutiny is dedicated to these issues now, we may be at the precipice of the first generation of space-related crimes.

Attempt to Shut Down Zombie Satellite Galaxy 15 Fails

by Peter B. de Selding
Space News

PARIS – An attempt to shut down the electronics payload of the out-of-control communications satellite Galaxy 15 has failed, leaving the satellite – which ceased responding to ground commands last month – still in its uncontrolled “zombiesat” drift toward orbits occupied by other spacecraft, the satellite’s fleet operator Intelsat said Tuesday.

Galaxy 15 is closing in on the geostationary orbital slot occupied by another C-band satellite, the AMC-11 spacecraft operated by SES World Skies, and with its stuck-on communications payload will be in a position to cause potentially severe interference with the SES satellite during a two-week period starting around May 23, according to Intelsat and SES estimates.

The unsuccessful attempt to shut down the so-called “zombiesat” – a satellite industry term for failed satellites in orbit – occurred on Monday.

In a Tuesday statement in response to Space News inquiries, Intelsat said it is researching other ways to shut down Galaxy 15 once the satellite has passed through the AMC-11 position and enters — for a limited period of time — a stretch of orbital terrain unoccupied by other C-band spacecraft.

“We do not have an additional specific technical attempt identified at this time,” Intelsat said in the statement. “But we will not give up, and expect to have other options to pursue at that time. We are now cooperating with other operators and customers to minimize potential service disruptions caused by interference.”

Galaxy 15 stopped responding to ground commands April 5 and since then has drifted out of its 133 degrees west longitude orbital slot on an eastward path along the geostationary arc at around 36,000 kilometers above the equator.

After sending between 150,000 and 200,000 commands to the satellite to coax it back into service, Intelsat was forced to scrap its satellite-recovery efforts and to resort, on Monday, to a limited-duration effort to force the satellite to shut down its transponders. This was to be accomplished by sending a stronger series of signals designed to cause Galaxy 15’s power system to malfunction and force a shutdown of the satellite’s payload.

That attempt, which Luxembourg-based, Washington-headquartered Intelsat had viewed as its last, best-understood option for Galaxy 15, was unsuccessful. With the satellite now nearing AMC-11, Intelsat is limited in what it can do besides assure itself of the satellite’s location. “There is no active testing of the payload,” the company said in its Tuesday statement.

Sending radio signals strong enough to force a satellite to shut down could pose dangers to other spacecraft in the target area, which is why Intelsat had only a short window of time to “pulse” Galaxy 15 with signals intended to trigger a failure of its power system. That period lasted about 30 minutes on Monday.

“Intelsat fully coordinated with neighboring operators the timing and the effects of this testing to neighboring spacecraft. It is our current understanding that no SES AMC-11 customers were affected by the disabling attempt,” Intelsat said.

Intelsat and Luxembourg-based SES have been closely coordinating interference-avoidance options since the initial Galaxy 15 failure, knowing that at predicted drift speeds the satellite will enter AMC-11’s 131 degrees west slot to within 0.5 degrees of AMC-11 on or about May 23.

SES officials say they are devising an elaborate series of maneuvers to create a maximum distance between Galaxy 15 and AMC-11 during the period of maximum threat. While they cannot guarantee that there will be no interference to media customers using AMC-11, the SES officials believe they have the resources, including teleport facilities to reroute traffic, required to minimize the problem during this two-week period.

Continuing its eastward drift, Galaxy 15 will exit the AMC-11 orbital slot starting around June 7, when it is expected to have moved to 0.5 degrees to the east of the satellite.

At that point, a new opportunity will be open to Intelsat as there is no C-band satellite at the next orbital station of 129 degrees west.

What Intelsat might do to precipitate a shutdown remains unclear. Industry officials say the Galaxy 15 problem — a satellite operating at full payload power that is no longer under control — is unprecedented. Intelsat has said it is seeking advice from satellite operators and manufacturers — not just the Galaxy 15 builder, Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., but also other companies with more experience with in-orbit problems — on possible options to force a shutdown.

Current estimates are that Galaxy 15 will lose Earth orientation sometime in late July or early August. The exact date cannot be known. But when it loses Earth pointing, its solar arrays will lose their lock on the sun, draining the satellite’s batteries and causing the satellite to shut down on its own.

Once the satellite leaves the vicinity of the AMC-11 and passes through the relatively safe neighborhood of 129 degrees west, it will enter a new neighborhood where it poses an interference threat similar to what AMC-11 now faces. But this time, it is only Intelsat-owned satellites and their customers at risk.

Galaxy 15 will be moving through the operating areas of Intelsat’s Galaxy 13 in mid-July, and is expected to arrive at the Galaxy 14 neighborhood in late July. By mid-August, it will be at the orbital slot of Intelsat’s Galaxy 18.