Did Russian hackers take control of and damage a NASA satellite? Thomas J. Talleur, senior cyber-security investigator at NASA, thinks so:
In 1998 a U.S.-German satellite known as ROSAT, used for peering into deep space, was rendered useless after it turned suddenly toward the sun. NASA investigators later determined that the accident was linked to a cyber-intrusion at the Goddard Space Flight Center in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. The interloper sent information to computers in Moscow, NASA documents show. U.S. investigators fear the data ended up in the hands of a Russian spy agency.
Without warning one day, the ROSAT satellite turned, seemingly inexplicably, toward the sun. The move damaged a critical optical sensor, rendering the satellite useless in its mission of making X-ray and ultraviolet images of deep space. NASA announced in a press release that ROSAT had been “accidentally scanning too closely to the sun.” Talleur’s report concluded otherwise.
The “accident,” he noted, had been “coincident with the intrusion” into the Goddard system controlling it. Why would Russians want to cripple a satellite beloved worldwide by students of pulsars and supernovas? “Operational characteristics and commanding of the ROSAT were sufficiently similar to other space assets to provide intruders with valuable information about how such platforms are commanded,” Talleur’s advisory said. Put differently, manipulating ROSAT could teach an adversary how to toy with just about anything the U.S. put into the sky.
Italics are mine. The rest of the article is fascinating and scary. Chinese and Russian hackers have been siphoning huge data dumps out of the NASA network for years, and nobody seems capable of doing anything about it.
He laments that for all of the costly cleanups following breaches, NASA hasn’t found a comprehensive solution. “It’s as if somebody pulls your pants down, and you just pull them back up,” says McManus. “How many times do you want to be standing on the street corner with your pants at your feet?”