Securing the final frontier

The Internet is full of promise and pitfalls, and when you extend it to space as a means of controlling operations, both the promise and the danger grow.

That's the dilemma facing NASA and other users in space today, because although the Internet offers ways to radically cut the costs of space exploration, it also opens those operations up to the hazards of the Web: hackers, denial-of-service attacks and possibly hijacking.

"The Internet becomes a real troubling point for NASA in that currently space operations occur in boundaries of essentially controlled facilities," said Rick Schnurr of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "If you get to a situation where anyone with a cell phone or [handheld computer] can do certain activities with space assets, then what kind of security measures have to be in place at an unsecured location before that can occur?"

According to NASA and industry officials, safeguards can and will include virtual private networks leading to the Internet, sensors to detect possible assaults and, eventually, biometrics.

The fact is, Web-based control of space assets is possible and has been tested successfully, most recently in November when Lockheed Martin Corp. technicians at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, used a Palm VII and a lap-top to send commands to a communications satellite.

"Today it's a satellite," said John Inkley, manager of federal sales at Palm Inc., "but if you take it to its logical conclusion, you can use the device as a remote terminal to control the space shuttle."

And that makes the possible loss of control a serious concern, according to Martin Skudlarek, manager of advanced technology for Lockheed Martin's Consolidated Space Operations Contract branch, which conducted the experiment in November.

"The big issue is security, making sure you don't get the odd hacker in there that's going to plot that spacecraft down on somebody's head," Skudlarek said.

NASA learned that potential hackers can very quickly locate Internet space operations—officials detected signals hitting the network from several locations, including Cincinnati and Japan.

The network remained secured behind a series of firewalls, an "encrypted tunnel" to the Internet, intrusion sensors and a ready ability—if necessary—to trace probes back to their source.

Biometrics—fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition or a combination of all three—also may play a part in securing the space Internet operations. It's not a new technology, but NASA is testing the Internet as a way of sending and authenticating biometrics data to deny illegitimate access to its Web operations.

"Almost all security is based on shared secrets," Schnurr said. "So essentially the maintenance of the shared secrets are the thing that keep you secure."

Mars channel on the horizon?

"Mars TV" may be a viewing option by the end of the decade, following the 2007 launch of a spacecraft dedicated to enabling communications between Mars and Earth.

Before that, NASA expects to launch an orbiter able to upload data from the red planet's surface and send it to Earth. The telecom link is planned as part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission in 2005.

The orbiter's mission is to survey Mars' surface, but it also will be equipped to serve as a relay link for other missions.

"We'll be in an era of being able to provide nearly continuous viewing of the surface of Mars," said Scott Hubbard, Mars program director at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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