November 18, 2011, 11:48 AM — Four times during 2007 and 2008 U.S. observation satellites "experienced interference" that was consistent with what would have happened if hackers from somewhere other than U.S. space agencies had hacked the controls and taken them over.
The ability to compromise another country's satellites would be a critical advantage in war or any lesser conflict, and China appears to be well ahead of the U.S. in its ability to attack satellites physically and digitally, according to a report (PDF) released yesterday by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Twice during 2008, NASA controllers lost control of the Terra EOS satellite due to "interference" that lasted two minutes the first time and nine the second.
In both instances "the responsible party achieved all steps required to command the satellite, but did not issue commands."
In separate incidents during 2007 and 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey briefly lost control of the Landsat-7 satellite, though the attackers didn't take control themselves.
Even denying enemies control of their own satellites is a huge threat in modern, heavily digitized, GPS-enabled, video-game-like warfare, enabled above all by the ability to rotate satellite cameras into place and see what an enemy or potential enemy is up to, without allowing the enemy to interfere.
In 2007 the Chinese military launched a ballistic missile into orbit to destroy an obsolete Chinese weather satellite. It scared the hell out of NASA because of the sudden cloud of new debris in orbit (which at one point forced astronauts to leave the International Space Station to during one dangerous pass by the debris.
It scared more hell out of the Pentagon, which depends on its satellites for everything from knowing where enemy troops are concentrating to getting directions from the barracks to the mess hall on giant Middle Eastern military bases.
The U.S. shot down one of its own satellites in 1985, but scientists quoted in 2007 were surprised the Chinese had the missile and guidance technology to manage it themselves.
Physically striking a missile orbiting at 500 miles – far higher than most spy satellites – is a real achievement, they said.
Hacking one from the ground may be equally as important an achievement, but with far lower costs and far, far more deniability.
NASA: Terra EOS satellite (artist's rendering)