Developing Threats: Electro-Magnetic Pulses (EMP) - Defence Committee Contents

5  Satellite security

83.  Space-based infrastructure such as satellites is particularly vulnerable to space weather events as highlighted by the evidence from Research Councils UK.[82] [83] The growing reliance on satellite infrastructure for a range of services, notably position, navigation and timing (PNT) services which provide global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) such as the US Global Positioning System (GPS) means that this vulnerability is potentially very problematic:

There are more than 600 satellites in orbit providing essential services [...]. During a space weather event the Van Allen radiation belts can intensify 10,000 fold or more resulting in satellite charging and damage to electronic components. Solar energetic particle events can also reduce solar array power and satellite lifetime. Three satellites in the radiation belts were damaged in one event in 1994, leading to serious loss of service, and satellite losses occurred in 1997, 1998 and 2003 during the last solar cycle.[84]

The planned European GPS system under project Galileo, by providing an alternative satellite navigation system will provide some additional measure of protection, through redundancy to existing GNSS. 

84.  The importance of PNT services were highlighted by a recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering:

A failure or loss of signal due to some outside influence can result in a range of consequences depending on the application; in a telecommunications network, a small loss in the efficiency of data handling may occur while the system "freewheels" until a signal is restored; in a surveying application where timing is not critical some delays may occur before the survey can be properly completed. In such applications, a temporary loss of GNSS signals might be considered an inconvenience. However, where systems are used in safety of life critical applications, the consequences can be more severe.[85]

85.  The UK Armed Forces rely on satellite services for a wide range of operational capabilities, such as communication systems, navigation etc. However, there are well established ways of reducing both the vulnerability of satellites themselves and GNSS networks to the effects of space weather. For instance, Research Councils UK suggest that "satellite operators attempt to mitigate the effects of space weather by hardening chips against radiation and by using multiple circuits so that a malfunctioning circuit can be outvoted by ones that are operating correctly."[86]

86.  Security of satellites is a matter of growing concern as our reliance upon such systems and the sheer number of satellites in orbit increase. The Government must consider the long-term security of satellite technology and ensure that national interests are protected where we rely on other nations for data, such as GPS. In the event of very severe space weather, even hardened satellite technology might be at risk of degradation. The MoD cannot therefore rule out the loss or degradation of satellite based-communications systems, and must plan for this eventuality.

82   Ev 29 Back

83   Our Specialist Adviser told us that in fact banking systems avoid using satellite communications because they are too slow and that only a very small proportion of internet traffic uses them. Also, internet uses satellite only where other systems are not available. Back

84   Ev 30 Back

85   Global Navigation Space Systems: reliance and vulnerabilities, Royal Academy of Engineering, March 2011 Back

86   Ev 31 Back

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Prepared 22 February 2012