Recently, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission released a report recommending that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should identify space systems as a critical infrastructure sector. Such a move could help improve the nation’s overall cybersecurity measures, but what else could it do to protect our interests in space? To learn more, we got a return visit from Vishnu Reddy, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona.

Interview Transcript: 

Vishnu Reddy I think, humanity as it evolves has become increasingly reliant on various things that we have on Earth and around the Earth. For example, we rely on space for everyday things like weather, banking, talking to loved ones, watching football, you name it, everything, even day-to-day stuff. In respect of the national security aspect of it, we rely on space for many, many things in our day to day life. So having a way to take a step back and say, are these things really protected? And the simple answer is no. There are no cops in space. We do space surveillance for the sake of space traffic management and below we do it for also Space Domain Awareness more recently. The difference being is that space situational awareness assumes that space has a benign environment, and space domain awareness classify a space as a war fighting domain. Unfortunately, this is not that we seek, but it is imposed on us by our adversaries. So we’re trying to at least get our hands around to see what is the threat, how do we go about securing it in a little bit more organized fashion. There is always the tactical response to what’s happening in space on a day-to-day level that the [Department of Defense (DoD)] deals with. But these documents or the studies that have been done are like kind of taking the longer view of, how do we do it if we’re not being reactive but being more proactive? I think that’s what this document that we’re discussing about comes into play. And the importance of something like that is that we’re trying to bring all the stakeholders together and then trying to see how can we secure the space assets like we do with our ports, like we do with our airspace, like we do with our roads and critical infrastructures in this country. And I think this provides a comprehensive view of how do we go about doing something similar in space.

Eric White Yeah, and it’s made a little bit more complicated. Now, I know that you’re comparing it to infrastructure we have down here, but Space Tech is up there. What are some of the issues that we could run into in creating a mechanism for defending them both from cyber attacks and from physical attacks?

Vishnu Reddy Yeah, I think the fundamental issue is, like you just said, is that space is hard to relate to. It is not, a crumbling infrastructure like a road, a bridge that is falling apart that we visibly see. There is no visceral reaction to something bad happening that you can see and relate to. Anytime we talk to our elected officials, people in the government, it is very hard to relate to simply, because even if you take them to a telescope and show a satellite or what some other satellite is doing, it appears to be so far so alien, for lack of a better word. It’s hard to relate human in human scales, so to speak. And if you look at the challenges we have faced with protecting space, for example, we still have the problem of even doing the basic space traffic management, the government, the military infrastructure that is there to do space surveillance is heavily taxed right now given the amount of commercial payloads that are going in. And we still don’t have a comprehensive picture of every order regime in the cadence we need to keep things from literally running into each other. And now you add the layer on top of it, which is national security or protecting critical infrastructure. That is a game that we are not build infrastructure. We don’t have the infrastructure to protect the infrastructure in space. That’s the way I would put it.

Eric White And as far as obviously, I say obviously I’m going to say it twice. It’s obvious what aspects of our day-to-day life that you mentioned relies on space networks, i.e., GPS and cell phones. But what other areas that may even intersect with some other critical infrastructures in the nation do we rely on space networks to provide, whether it’s just making sure everything keeps running or is the backbone of that critical infrastructure itself?

Vishnu Reddy Yeah, I think you made a good point with GPS and also Internet. But there are simple things. A backbone would be weather, we don’t want people to get hurt by weather events like, hurricane thunderstorms, tornadoes. So that is a backbone infrastructure. A lot of our natural resources, for example, that we rely on, on the earth these are slow moving things. But we critically use space for remote sensing purposes. And if you go more into the critical infrastructure, for example, our national security assets in space. An asset on the earth is protected by fences with armed guards, Cybersecurity. They have hardened how much ever they could. And there’s also the cybersecurity, there is also the physical security and those kind of things, maybe there is this  we definitely harden our satellites on the way we communicate with them, but there’s no physical safety. Our adversary can maneuver in the middle of the day next to a valuable asset in space and carry out their activity, because we can’t see them during the daytime because the sun is up with a regular space surveillance telescope. So we need assets in space, watching our critical assets in space, satellites that are doing space surveillance in orbit and things like that.

Eric White And having those assets up there to protect the already expensive assets. That sounds like it’s going to cost some money there. So if you want to maybe pretend that I’m a budget guard that you are trying to convince, hey, this is worth the money, what would you tell them?

Vishnu Reddy That’s a very good point. Even us living in probably the greatest nation on earth, the United States, money is something that we have to be careful about, because it is taxpayer money. We want to be good stewards of it. And I think the military has taken a slightly different approach, which is rather than building these big satellites like, the Battlestar Galactica sized satellites that were launched last ten, 20 years, they’re distributing the threat. So now every commercial payload could be accessed by a foreign military needs, for that matter, or all these mega constellations that are going up like the Starlinks, the Kuiper, the Oneweb, all of these could have payloads on them. So suddenly the adversary, instead of trying to target one high value asset as 30,000 satellites that are carrying out the mission, you distribute the risk basically. And so that is an inexpensive way of kind of building resilience into the system rather than trying to have a $5 billion satellite being protected by another $5 billion satellite that has a backup, another 5 billion little satellite. You take advantage of the mega constellations that are going up and also the smaller payloads, not necessarily CubeSat, but something like small size things and then having payloads on them that you can quickly launch. And that way it gives you layers of resilience that you normally wouldn’t have if you have one large asset. I think the one large asset days are quickly coming to an end, and they made sense when we thought space has a benign environment and we were primarily looking at it. There are no bad guys in space.  Everybody’s here to do whatever they’re doing to help their own nations. But now we have adversaries who are actively challenging that. The norm that we had for over 50 years. And so I think distributing the risk is the way, we do it in a cost effective way. And also it makes sense to do it that way.

Eric White Yeah. And in all the examples that we’ve been kind of not specific but been throwing back and forth, it seems as if we’re discussing non nation state actors. But is there precious territory in space that will be vying with our near-peer competitors for? Are there areas in space that say, hey, if you want to have a functional satellite network, you have to have a presence in this sector or area of low earth orbit. Is that sort of how it works? And if that’s the case, are we going to have to do some negotiating? Obviously, we will. But are we going to have to do a little bit strong arming just to make sure what we have up there is safe in the spot that it’s in already?

Vishnu Reddy Yeah, that’s a very good question. We we rarely talk about something called orbital capacity. How many satellites can we put in on orbit, despite the fact that space is as we consider it’s infinite, there is a capacity to how many satellites you can put in before it becomes a challenge to keep them there. And so we definitely have to think about, with this megaconstellation going up, these are commercial payloads primarily. What is the capacity of these orbits? And mind you, like you rightly pointed out, our competitors fight potential adversaries. They also have aspirations to have their own mega constellations in similar orbit regimes. So it becomes an important thing where we have to find a path forward, whether it’s collaborating, where we can collaborate and strong arming where we can’t. That becomes a valid option on the table. But I believe that anything bad happening in space is going to affect everybody. You’re not going to win by destroying your satellite or your adversary satellite, because the debris is going to affect everybody. So I think it’s very important that this is sorted out, sitting face to face, and rather than trying to do it to a strong arm, for lack of a better word. So I believe that we should try and figure out a path forward now. If you take the same equation much further out, for example, you’d go to jail. Obviously, there are specific oral slots that are very precious. They haven’t been too precious, but we’re getting to a point it gets crowded. And there’s an important reason why we want to move satellites or satellites that are at the end of their life into a graveyard orbit so that they don’t interfere or intersect with active satellites that are currently there, and also it empties that orbital slot so that new satellites can be launched. So that’s definitely an issue. And if you go even further out, as we ventured to Cislunar space, definitely the resources on the moon are limited. There are only specific spots on the moon where we have things like water, ice and permanently shadowed regions in the poles. And that becomes, definitely you’re going to have a real estate war over there eventually, maybe not immediately, but 5000 years from now, it’s a finite amount. Once you park yourself in a certain sweet spot and your mining resources, it becomes that much challenging for somebody coming, say, five or ten years later after the first nation gets there, and then try and find a location. So it’s very important that we not only get there first, but get to the right spot first, so that we can claim access to those resources and build an infrastructure that is open to the free world.

Eric White You mentioned it earlier how we used to kind of think there are no adversaries in space. And that was sort of projected, because of everybody just wanted to explore and it was seen as taking the next step for humanity and the planet in general, and was really one of the only ways that we had for interacting with the Soviet Union and China and people who we don’t usually collaborate with. And I’m curious if you in your role and in speaking with your counterparts with our Near-peer competitors, if you still get that sense that everybody does want to explore and we’re not quite yet there where we’re saying, hey, I saw it first.

Vishnu Reddy Right. Yeah, that’s a that’s a good question. There are areas we do collaborate relatively closely. I wouldn’t say very closely, but there are restrictions for using federal funds to work with folks in China, for example. But we do work with them through another part of my life, which is planetary defense. We work very closely with our colleagues in China and Russia on something called the International Asteroid Warning Network. It’s called I won. Because there the threat is global. A 1500 meter rock headed towards the earth is going to cause global damage. It’s not like we’re going to be more effective than, say, China or Russia or they’re going to be more effective than us. It’s a common, for lack of a better word, enemy of a threat. So we all band together to work and solved that issue. And I think that’s very important, because any day we sit across the table with our adversaries is a good day and because we’re not fighting a war with them. So definitely there are areas we collaborate on. And I think they also see, as much as there is a competition to race to the moon and secure and build an infrastructure over there, there is a sense of realization that the challenges we face with tracking objects not just in GEO, but especially in cislunar space. It affects them as well. It’s not like it uniquely affects only U.S. spacecraft out of U.S. assets. It affects them as well. And so they have to be mindful of it. And so there might be a way. We have to keep talking, because in the end, irrespective of whether we have a conflict or not, we’ll end up popping to resolve the conflict. Usually that how it works out.

Eric White Got it. And bringing it back to the here and now and protecting what’s already up there. Finishing up. Just curious on what you think of your role and the private sector’s role and the government’s role and how collaboration in that capacity could work. Obviously, the government has an interest in protecting its citizenry, and the private sector has an interest in protecting its highly valuable assets. And where do you all fit in that mold?

Vishnu Reddy Yeah, I think academia is kind of like the third pillar of this whole effort to solve this problem. And the reason being is that we literally are paid to think out of the box, that’s what we do. And we probably have the fresh and the brightest minds in the country, in terms of our students. And that gives us the opportunity and the responsibility to find innovative solution to these problems. And at the University of Arizona, we just started a new center called the Space Safety Security and Sustainability Center. It’s a $10 million investment from the state of Arizona to tackle this challenge. And I am the director of it, along with colleagues from different units within or on campus, from engineering, from law, from optical science. We have faculty and students from across campus trying to tackle these very challenges we just spoke about. How do we go about securing our global assets, not just from adversarial nations, but also from the debris that are generated by a number of events, whether it’s collisions, whether it’s new launches, whether it’s anti-satellite tests. So how do we go about making this the whole space environment safe, secure and actually sustainable for future use, whether it is for commercial use, academic use or national security use. So that’s where we come into play. We have a mandate to develop the software infrastructure, which is usually not something that is looked upon. We believe, we probably have more telescopes pointed at the sky than any entity on the planet. We have more glass looking at the University of Arizona than any other entity on the planet. But at the same time, we need to have the software side of things to crunch those data that we get back from these telescope and sensors. So that’s what we’re focused on at the Space Force Center, and we’re hoping that some of the things we’re doing would eventually enable us to solve some of these problems and get closer to that.