The federal government wants these teams to hack a satellite from their homes


Vittitoe, too, remembers some old NASA tricks that came in handy during the qualifying laps. In one challenge, the team had to infiltrate a simulated Apollo 11 guidance computer and read a locked digital value inside. Other challenges – all taking place in a simulated environment, and not in the bowels of real orbital systems – were in satellite operations, which taught certain space bases during the competition: tasking the satellite to take a photo, download, charge the spaceship batteries without sending them to the sun, etc. “We have crashed many simulated satellites in our attempts to find the right solution to these challenges,” says Vittitoe.

Of course, space is hard and different, he concedes. You have obscure – sometimes outdated and foggy – systems hissing around the Earth at thousands of miles an hour, connecting to ground stations, and possessing unique solar panels, thrusters, and instruments. But one thing always plays out in Heaven as it is on Earth: “At the end of the day, this is all code running on a computer,” he says. “It has inputs, it processes those inputs and it produces outputs.”

Samurai and the Seven other teams that will hack a sat recently received their own FlatSat base station in the mail. “They’re going to be able to tear it up,” Roper says. Normally they could have done it from the same physical location, but the teams (being hackers, after all) had no problem accessing and familiarizing with the base station remotely, while it remains in the possession of one person.

When the final competition begins on August 7, they will first have to work on issues on another FlatSat. At some point in this headlong work, the organizers will task the teams to write code that can take control of the real orbiting satellite, which will carve an ellipse around the Earth. The code must order him to change his orientation, point his camera at the moon and take a picture.

After testing and perfecting this code on their FlatSat, the team with the most accurate, efficient and timely solution will be able to issue commands to the real satellite, sometimes within a 24-hour window, and take a portrait. lunar. “A literal moon shot,” Roper says. A cliché that, according to Roper, the organizers would tweet that day.

This type of openness runs through the entire competition, with entrants, for example, being required to post all of their solutions to challenges. The transparency reduced the ethical questions that some competitors might have had about piracy for the federal government. “It’s not, ‘Oh, okay, learn how to hack this thing. And tell us, and don’t tell anyone else. And we will use it offensively, ”Prieto says. “For me, personally, that removes some of the concerns about it. If it was one of those “Sign an NDA and do this thing” I don’t think most people would be comfortable with that. “

But it’s not like there are a lot of other options if you want someone to have the blessing of hacking into a working satellite. “I don’t know of people who have satellites lying around,” says Williams of Team PFS.

Co-conspirator Malekpour agrees. “I don’t know how I would normally do that or get a FlatSat,” he says. “I don’t think you can just get this on Amazon.”

However, there is a bit of a cultural side that cuts the other direction as well. Despite a thaw in relations, as evidenced by efforts like Hack the Pentagon and the invitation to hack-an-F-15, tensions between the two communities have a long history. And so, Goldstein said, “on the DOD side there is baggage.”

But to suggest that hackers and federal authorities are dichotomous and dissimilar is not true. “We are forcing people to adopt that word,” Goldstein says of the term pirate, “While we often talk about security researchers.” Many, if not most, hackers are not rogue agents in the basements, but professionals with jobs – sometimes inside or on behalf of the government – whose 9 to 5 tasks include discovery. vulnerabilities like this. “We have people with the highest security clearances who are security researchers, hackers,” Goldstein says. “It’s part of our community.”


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