China Accused of Hacking NASA Satellites

Dennis Faas's picture

Officials are set to report that hackers briefly seized control of two NASA satellite and circumstantial evidence suggests that the Chinese military may have been involved.

The breaches took place in 2007 and 2008 but have only just come to light. They are mentioned in a report to Congress that is due to be delivered next month, though a draft copy has been leaked to news agencies. The report comes from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and quotes information provided to the commission by the U.S. Air Force. (Source:

The hacking took place four times in total: two times each on two separate satellites. Both are used for tracking climate and the earth's terrain, with one run by NASA and one a joint project of NASA and the US geological survey.

Hackers Didn't Exploit Power

On each occasion the satellites were subjected to interference, sometimes for as long as 12 minutes. With the two incidents involving the NASA-only satellite, the hackers were able to reach a position where they had the power to issue commands to the satellites, though did not actually do so.

It's thought the hacking was made possible by a breach of security at SvalSat, a Norwegian commercial facility that has access to the satellites, and uses the Internet for data transfers.

The commission warns that although no harm was done on this occasion, the fact that the attackers were able to gain such access is worrying. It may well be that the attacks were a test to see if such unauthorized access was possible and that future attacks could either involve causing actual damage, or obtaining sensitive information from other satellites.

Chinese Suspected, Though Proof of Links Non-Existent

Though the attacks are mentioned in a report by China, the commission says it does not have any specific evidence linking the country to the incidents. Instead, it notes that Chinese military documents have previously talked about accessing satellites as an espionage tactic and even disabling satellites and other space equipment as a military tactic, if needed.

The Chinese embassy in the US has called the commission's accounts "unproved stories" and says China does not put other countries' security interests at risk. (Source:

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