The AFRL is developing a “cyber range” for space operators

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Space Force operators would use the cyber training range to practice defending satellites using real orbiting spacecraft

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory plans to use experimental cubesats to create a training environment for space-focused cybersecurity exercises.

The AFRL Information Directorate seeks to build a cyber range for the Space Force and other organizations to conduct realistic exercises simulating cyberattacks against satellites and ground systems.

“There has recently been greater pressure for cyber defense experts to work in the space arena,” said Thomas Parisi, program manager at AFRL’s Information Branch based in Rome, New York.

Parisi said there is a growing need for cyber defense training as the US military worries about its satellite networks could be targeted.

In response to this request, the AFRL is in the process of prototyping a training range that would replicate an actual satellite operations center. While the Department of Defense has many training facilities for cyber warfare exercises, Parisi said, there are none where researchers and military operators can practice defending satellites using real spacecraft. in orbit.

AFRL works with Stephenson Stellar Corp., a non-profit research and development company specializing in cybersecurity. The company, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last year received a $22.7 million contract to develop the so-called Stellar Space Cyber ​​Range.

“It provides a real, non-simulated, space-range environment for this research,” Parisi said. “We will work with space specialists and determine what concepts, what technologies, what next-generation cyber defense capabilities we can bring to the space domain.”

The cyber range concept includes four cubesats that the AFRL plans to launch into low Earth orbit in fiscal year 2024, Parisi said.

Jeff Moulton, president of Stephenson Stellar, said the cubesats have been built but there are still parts of the project that have not been funded.

“We are looking for launch funds,” he said. Moulton estimates an additional $18 million would be needed to launch the satellites and develop cloud-based ground stations. He said potential users of the system, such as Space Systems Command, the Space Development Agency and other Space Force organizations, are likely to provide funding.

Parisi said access to real hardware is a priority for researchers and for operators who need to protect systems. “We’re excited because we want to be able to get real assets into space that researchers can actually use as a test range rather than just working in the lab,” he said. “Being able to demonstrate concepts with a real constellation of satellites instead of just in a lab will have a much stronger impact.”

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