NASA assisted in the discovery of a security flaw in spacecraft networks
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NASA assisted in the discovery of a security flaw in spacecraft networks

NASA and University of Michigan researchers discovered a security hole that might endanger spacecraft under the right (or incorrect) circumstances. The team uncovered a vulnerability in time-triggered Ethernet (TTE), a feature that allows essential systems to coexist with small ones on the same networking hardware. An attacker may transmit fraudulent sync messages by sending electromagnetic interference via copper Ethernet cables into network switches, causing a “gap” in the activity of the switch and allowing bogus data to get through. The TTE gadget will eventually lose sync and act unpredictably.

Because the assault requires the placement of a tiny device on the network, remote breaches are rare. However, the ramifications might be severe. The vulnerability was evaluated using genuine NASA equipment to simulate an asteroid redirection test. In a simulation, the TTE exploit had a significant enough knock-on impact that the crew capsule deviated from its route and missed a critical docking operation.

There are simple precautions, however they are not without problems. Vehicle designers might replace copper Ethernet lines with fibre optic cables or install optical isolators between switches and devices if they are ready to accept cost and performance tradeoffs. Engineers might potentially alter the network structure to prevent bogus sync messages from following the same route as authentic ones, but this would undoubtedly take time.

NASA and the university emphasise that no “current” danger is recognised. The technology, however, has the potential to damage aeroplanes, power plants, and industrial control systems that depend on TTE. In theory, a saboteur with physical access may destroy key infrastructure in ways that are not immediately apparent.