Smart Satellites: Secure software updates for spacecraft applications and services

By Nikoletta Triantafyllopoulou, Libre Space Foundation

Open-source space technology and satellites

UPSat: the first-ever Open-source satellite

On the 18th of May 2017, UPSat, the world’s first-ever open-source CubeSa, built using open-source hardware and software, was released into orbit by the International Space Station. The CubeSat made history with its successful deployment marking a significant milestone for open-source software and hardware in space. This satellite was created in the centre of Athens, at, the Libre Space Foundation’s headquarters. Since that deployment, several open-source satellites have travelled to space successfully, rendering open-source space technology a way to make space accessible to everyone.

Satellites: an overview

As you read these lines, about 7,700 active satellites with various uses are making their way through space in various Earth orbits. Some satellites are built for communication purposes, others for weather forecasting, broadcasting, navigation, Earth observation, scientific research and military uses too. When these satellites or spacecraft face failures, software updates often need to be released to fix the issues encountered and to optimise their capabilities while in orbit. But what happens if there is a glitch, bug, or, worse, a corrupted update?

The REWIRE Smart Satellites Use Case

Libre Space Foundation (LSF) participates in REWIRE, undertaking the demonstration and evaluation of the open-source Smart Satellites Use Case. More specifically, the Libre Space Foundation team will work on testing the security of software updates for spacecraft applications and services. As pointed out in the previous paragraph, this is one of the industry’s most significant issues, and the LSF team working within the REWIRE framework will attempt to provide solutions for it.

For the needs of this activity, the LSF team will use a FlatSat model.

A FlatSat is an “opened-up” satellite, where all the systems typically found on a satellite are represented on a horizontal, flat layout. It operates as if it were in orbit, and its hardware and software are represented in high fidelity so that testing can occur within a lab. The FlatSat is used for rigorous testing and experiments for new technologies (among other disciplines). This is why it is chosen to facilitate, foster and host all the testing for the Smart satellites use case.

This specific FlatSat will become the test bed for the CubeSat and PocketQube systems. Among its components, there will be a Communications system (such as SatNOGS-COMMS), an Onboard Computer (OBC), and a Field Programmable Gate Arrays board (FPGA) that is an integrated circuit. The latter allows the reconfiguration of the hardware to adapt to meet specific use case requirements. With these components on board the FlatSat, the LSF team will use that testbed as the environment for conducting excessive testing on the security of software updates.

The REWIRE protocol will optimise the security process and enhance the security implemented in the communications channels. This will make it easier to check the firmware update once applied and validate whether its security status is corrupted, damaged or safe. For the purpose of this project, two scenarios will be explored. The one scenario focuses on secure software updates for applications, services, and security patches on spacecraft. The second scenario tests communication among different payloads, where satellites with secure software and satellites with corrupted software are making their way into space on the same vehicle.

Stay tuned to find out how the testing of these scenarios unfolds!

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