SMC Team supports first satellite hacking exercise

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  • By Space and Missile Systems Center Public Affairs

Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.—Satellite and ground experts from the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) led a satellite hacking event to bolster the nation’s security and shot for the Moon.                          

The year-long effort culminated in the virtual Space Security Challenge 2020: Hack-A-Sat event Aug. 7-9, 2020.

SMC members from the Special Programs Directorate and Enterprise Corps combined forces to provide integral support and oversight ensuring that the virtual Hack-A-Sat Capture the Flag Challenge was a success.

SMC’s Hack-A-Sat teams from the Special Programs Directorate led by Capt. Aaron Bolen executed the on-orbit portion of the event and the Enterprise Corps Cross Mission Ground and Communications cyber operations team, led by Capt. Ali Preiss, conducted the integrity management of the competition. Their teams were critical to the successful execution of the “Hack-A-Sat” challenge.

“From the Special Programs side, we had over a dozen folks working in some form or fashion this past year to make this goal of having an on-orbit component to DEF CON a reality,” said Bolen.

This challenge asked security researchers, commonly known as hackers, from across the country and around the world to focus their skills and creativity in solving cybersecurity challenges on space systems. These white-hat ethical hackers are members of the research and security communities focused on legally and safely finding vulnerabilities for many different types of systems. This challenge focused on bridging the gap between space, cyber and security communities and growing these ecosystems.

In September 2019, Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Information Directorate, invited SMC to be a part of the 2020 DEF CON Hack-A-Sat event, tasking the center with leading the on-orbit portion of the Hack-A-Sat event. In partnership with AFRL, the Defense Digital Service (DDS) and Aerospace Corporation, among other academic, industry and government partners, SMC accepted this challenge and executed the mission successfully.

DEF CON offered a controlled environment that allowed these professionals to explore and challenge their skills in a safe and secure manner. This past May, more than 2000 teams entered into the qualification round of the Hack-A-Sat challenge. The top eight teams were invited to the final event from Aug. 7-9, 2020. These teams competed against each other to solve many challenges through capture-the-flag (CTF) game play.   

Competitors were able to explore the components of a satellite system, including the ground segment, radio frequency communications and the satellite bus. This was like war games at a different level--with code. This was not only an opportunity for these teams to participate in the chance to “hack” a real space asset but also to earn bragging rights and monetary prizes. Most importantly, they gained exposure to new systems they never would have access to otherwise.

Before anything happened in space, there were several challenges thrown at the competitors through their earth-bound flatsats. As they worked through these challenges, they were able to glean all the information necessary to come up with code they would eventually submit to capture the “moonshot.”  The team with the most accurate, efficient and timely solution had their commands executed on the live space vehicle.  The hackers’ code had to command the space asset to change its orientation and take a lunar portrait – or a “moonshot” – by pointing the satellite’s on-board camera at the moon – and snap a pic; an appropriate finale to the three days of arduous effort the hackers engaged in.

“I am so proud to have led the team that put the Sat in Hack-a-Sat. To realize that we represented the USSF in this first major endeavor since its inception has truly been remarkable. It has taken us over a year to get to the final event and seeing the final teams succeed with the help of our SMC teams, all coordinated remotely, is a great feat that we accomplished together with great resiliency and determination,” said Bolen. 

Bolen and his team’s coordinated efforts allowed them to secure an active satellite, create a never-done-before concept of operations that allowed code to run on the space vehicle and get an actual picture of the moon within hours of input commands. This was not an easy task, especially when DEFCON had to shift to a virtual environment because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This event also gave SMC, AFRL, DDS and space industry agencies a chance to learn about possible vulnerabilities to space assets, which in turn will inform how these systems are designed in the future so that the space domain continues to serve our digitally linked world.

Preiss and her team, at the SMC Enterprise Corps Cross Mission Ground and  Communications cyber operations, were responsible for integrating a system to help the USSF conduct integrity management of the competition and understand the different classes of vulnerabilities researchers and security professionals found during the challenges.


“This was such an exciting event to be a part of because it was an innovative way to help the USAF and USSF learn about potential space and cyber vulnerabilities that can affect our nation and ensure DoD technology keeps pace with the rest of the world. The opportunity to collaborate with many different people and organizations was very rewarding because this event helped to make cyber security a priority for space,” said Preiss.

Col. Dennis Bythewood, SMC Special Programs director was very proud of the team’s efforts stating this event was not merely an exercise but provided a controlled scenario to witness a satellite and ground station hacking experience firsthand.

“SMC’s team of experts brought their A-game to this challenge. This is a huge vote of confidence in SMC’s knowledge, expertise and ability to analyze, control and react to possible threats to our space and ground assets. There was invaluable intelligence gained with learning about potential vulnerabilities and tested real-time reactions,” said Bythewood.

The winning teams from this year’s event were, PFS, Poland Can Into Space, FluxRepeatRocket and Solar Wine. For more information or to learn more about the Hack-a-Sat event, visit or


The Space and Missile Systems Center is the U.S. Space Force's center of excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems. SMC’s portfolio includes space launch, global positioning, military space vehicle communications, defense meteorological space vehicles, range systems, space vehicle control networks, space-based infrared systems, and space situational awareness capabilities.

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