So You Want to Steal A Space Station

iss047e061100 NASA Johnson

Let’s be honest: building space stations is a difficult, expensive business. Constructing one takes an extraordinary effort: the ISS, for example, required more than 100 EVAs to assemble and maintain its 159 components, and that is despite extensive usage of Russia’s advanced autonomous spaceflight systems.

Launching this stuff into space is no joke: the first module of the ISS, the Functional Cargo Block (or Zarya), weighs more than 42,000 lbs. Even if you were to use Space X’s optimistic cost-per-pound of $2,500, that single component could cost more than $105 million. The ISS currently weighs something like 900,000 pounds. Do the math: even building something considerably less grandiose could still cost an incredible amount of money.

So building your own space station is hard. What about stealing someone else’s? It’s seems a bit ridiculous to ponder, but let’s stretch our brains a bit.

Why

The first question is why you would want to: reasons like prestige, research, and engineering test beds make sense for building one, but stealing doesn’t quite fit the bill. All it would prove is that you could seize it and kick the scientists back down the gravity well.

One possible reason to steal someone else’s space station is a power dilemma: you’re worried they’re building or researching something that you want for yourself: whether a medical breakthrough, a new type of materials science, or even a weapons system. While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids any weapons in space, the Soviet Union test-fired a 23-millimeter space cannon, the R-23M Kartech, on its Almaz military station just before being deorbited. Countries can build forbidden things in secret, and probably do all the time — think about what the US Air Force’s unmanned X-37 drone is doing up there: we don’t know!

Another possible reason is that it’s just part of a conflict. While the ISS is very much a joint venture between the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Russia, maybe one of the member states wants to seize control of, say, the next Chinese Tiangong station (or vice-versa). Granted, in a conflict between China and the west, there would be more pressing issues than the fate of a space station, but there’s no denying that seizing one would make for a powerful testament to either side’s prowess.

Next up we should think of the how.

Hack The Gibsons

The easiest might not involve laying hands on it in the slightest. The ISS is held aloft by orbital mechanics: it’s being constantly pulled to the ground, but because it was accelerated to such a high speed, it is able to travel over the horizon before it would hit the ground – in other words, its path over the earth is curved at the exact same circular angle as the ground underneath it. But the ISS is not out of the atmosphere: at around 212 miles, it is still well within the thin whisps of the exosphere. Granted, the density of air at that altitude is extremely low, but the ISS needs constant boosting from its resupply vessels (drones manufactured by Russia, Japan, the EU, and now Space X) in order for it to maintain its velocity and thus, its altitude.

Those robot drones require a lot of computerization to work, and they are in constant communication with the ground in order to ensure that they function properly. In theory, altering that code would allow someone to effectively seize control of the station itself. Same with tampering with the signals sent to ground control.

There are also numerous computers to tamper with as well. Most of the systems on the ISS run on Lenovo T61P laptops, which probably were not infected with Superfish malware, but are nevertheless vulnerable to attacks. On the ISS, most of the laptops are formatted with customized Linux software, and it’s unclear how secure the software is to exploits.

Seizing control of a space sation in this way wouldn’t be quite the same as physically seizing it, but it would disrupt station operations so much that it would grant effective control, at least until the other side could figure out how to harden their systems against future attacks.

Storm the Station

Then there’s the most fun idea: physically taking control. This would be the hardest option for taking a space station. The way orbital mechanics work, there really isn’t any such thing as sneaking up on a facility in space: you’ll see it approaching, whether from sunlight glinting off a window or from puffs of gas escaping the maneuvering thrusters. Moreover, unless you want to seriously risk either colliding with (and thereby destroying) the station, or missing it and sailing off into an unrecoverable orbit, you have to approach fairly slowly. So the target will see the attacking from a ways off.

This means the targeted space station would have a lot of tools at their disposal for fending off an approaching strike team: it could be something as simple as using the station’s own thrusters to prevent a proper docking up to inducing a station-wide spin — which would be extremely damaging but would at least preven seizure. In addition, during the long approach phase of the assault, the defending country would have other weapons on hand to prevent it: both China and the U.S. have demonstrated the capacity to fire missiles at satellites and destroy them, and Russia is developing its own capability.

But let’s say you can get a spaceship close enough to attempt actually boarding the station. What then?

You need to get inside first. This is much harder than it is portrayed in science fiction: airlocks are sensitive, high-precision equipment, and they are easy to tamper with if you want to prevent someone from the outside using one. Plus, the ISS doesn’t have very many, and deliberately breaching a docked Progress craft poses such extreme danger (in terms of inducing spin, detonating propellant, and so on) I doubt any assault force would want to risk it.

Maybe you could compromise the computer systems such that the station crew wasn’t able to interfere with your boarding party. Maybe you bring along one of those Russian space cannons and present two alternatives: be escorted into a reentry vehicle or be killed. Or maybe you go left field and send in a bunch of small, purpose built robots to effectively seize control of the station’s mechanical systems so that you don’t have to worry about sending an assault team.

Really, Why Bother

But ultimately, there’s no real reason to bother with it. Space Stations are vulnerable, tenuous things. If a war with China or Russia ever did escalate to space, there would be a much bigger problem with blowing up comms and navigation satellites than worrying over a space station (and hooray Kessler syndrome). Destroying the station is so much easier than trying to steal it, and you’d still gain the notoreity from destroying such a massive accomplishment.

While seizing a space station now is a silly thing to ponder, it won’t be in the future. Determining jurisdiction in space is a very hard problem, and an attack or attempt on a future space facility cannot be ruled out even if it’s too much trouble with our current level of technology. Whether hardening computer systems or inventing physical security schemes for future outposts, it would be worth examining what, exactly, it will take to remain safe and secure as we push out the boundaries of where humans can travel.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.