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ESA Prioritizes Cybersecurity With SES–Led Consortium

We caught up with ESA officials to get a detailed look of the agency’s cybersecurity plans in light of the partnership with industry players around encryption via satellite.

With cybersecurity being such a hot topic for satellite, the industry is stepping up its efforts to make sure it doesn’t find itself front and center on CNN one day. A couple of months ago, SES announced it was teaming up with a consortium as well as the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a system that will allow the generation of encryption keys from space, as well as their secure transmission to users on Earth via laser. Under the agreement with ESA, the SES-led consortium of industry partners will establish a Quantum Cryptography Telecommunication System (QUARTZ), a new platform aimed at providing a global service for next-generation encryption keys for use in geographically dispersed networks. Possible applications will address the needs of users such as telecommunication operators, financial organizations, infrastructure providers, institutions and potentially governmental organizations.

Timeline for QUARTZ

QUARTZ is a project within ESA’s ARTES ScyLight framework. The ScyLight program was set up in 2016 to push secure and optical communication technologies. It is mostly driven by European and Canadian space industries. QUARTZ was formulated by SES together with a consortium. This resulted in a contract with ESA. The project is now in the implementation phase. Harald Hauschildt, Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) ScyLight manager at ESA, told Via Satellite there are more projects currently under preparation and that ScyLight remains open for further proposals from industry.

Hauschildt says that QUARTZ will be made up of several phases. First, there will be an end-to-end, on-the-ground demonstration of the service’s performance under real-world operational conditions. This will include the development of all related payload and ground segment elements. “Once the performance, market and security requirements are fully understood, the next phase of a full system design and in-orbit demonstration is foreseen. We hope this will produce an operational system in the mid-2020s,” he says.

With security applications based on satellite services playing an important role in today’s society, QUARTZ will aim to develop a space-based service for customers on ground that need cryptographic keys for secure communication. By relaying these keys via satellite from space, the terrestrial distance limitations of ground-based Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) solutions are removed. The service can be delivered globally with the satellite acting as a trusted courier of keys, adds Hauschildt.


Hauschildt explains that QKD is a new security technology that has been demonstrated in many ground-based experiments. “ESA has always been a front runner in developing this technology for space applications. For example, European scientists performed the first long distance quantum laser links between the Canary Islands of Tenerife and La Palma, proving that quantum states can survive turbulent atmosphere, which is a requirement for use from space. Classical laser communication terminals are already used to transfer information between the European Data Relay System satellites and the European Union’s Copernicus program. These existing platforms have demonstrated that many technologies required for QKD applications in space have reached a high Technology Readiness Level (TRL) level,” he says.

Hauschildt says QUARTZ will aim to develop and demonstrate the use of a complete QKD system, including the payload, the ground segments and the operational environment. In order to achieve this, the performance of an operational system needs to be better understood and demonstrated, including the interfaces with the existing network security infrastructures. Following this, QUARTZ will organize a flight demonstration of the developed technology to draw in the system’s first commercial customers, he adds.

There is little doubt that cybersecurity is one of ESA’s priorities over the next few years, as it steps up the numbers of projects it is involved in. Hauschildt admits it is working round the clock to protect ESA’s programs and space assets from cyber threats. It is doing this through close cooperation with the relevant authorities and implementing the right protection methods.

Magali Vaissiere, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, and Nicole Robinson, SVP Global Government, SES Networks, sign the QUARTZ contract on 2 May 2018 in Toulouse, France.ESA/Grimault

“QKD is a new technology and while the physical and technical properties involved are well understood, its integration into existing security environments and understanding of the customer needs requires more work,” he says. “QKD is only a secure communication method if implemented in the correct way — it does not play into these attributes by default. With QUARTZ, ESA is at the forefront of demonstrating this cutting-edge technology and exploring the benefits for different markets, but also understanding the risks and limitations. QUARTZ is an excellent example of how, with the support of ESA’s ScyLight program, the scientific communities’ research work and private industry’s requirements can be combined to develop future applications.”


So, what are ESA’s goals when it comes to cyber? Hauschildt goes back to 2016 as a point where ESA really ramped up its efforts. That year, together with commercial partner Airbus, ESA established the European Data Relay System (EDRS). EDRS aims to provide resilient communications between satellites using laser communication technology.

Under the lead of the European Commission and in partnership with the European Defense Agency (EDA), ESA is also preparing its member states’ industry for GOVSATCOM, which will provide guaranteed access to secure satcom resources for governmental applications. ESA also cooperates with the EDA to develop protection profiles for additional space mission types.

“ESA’s goals when it comes to cyber may be summarized as follows: We would like to contribute to systematic and cost-effective means of addressing cyber threats, both in terms of solid security engineering and management processes, and in terms of innovative security technologies and solutions in the space domain,” adds Hauschildt.

Cyber Threat

Assessing the cyber threat to the satellite industry in Europe is not particularly easy. In many countries, the space and defense industries are closely related, and both develop critical technologies. “From this point of view one has to assume that they attract the interest of cyber threat actors in similar fashions. Looking at the publicly-reported attacks to defense industries, the space industry should consider itself under comparable threat. Also space in general enjoys a high public profile, so attacks aiming for media attention through disruption maybe likely, possibly more than in other industries,” says Hauschildt. VS