AFRL develops ‘cyber range’ to test vulnerabilities in space networks

Space Force operators would use the cyber training range to practice satellite defense using real spacecraft in orbit

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

The AFRL Intelligence Directorate seeks to create a cyber range for the Space Force and other agencies to conduct realistic cyber attack simulation exercises against satellites and ground systems.

“There has recently been a greater push for defense cyber experts to work in the space arena,” said Thomas Parisi, program director at AFRL’s Intelligence Directorate based in Rome, New York.

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

In response to this requirement, AFRL is prototyping a training suite that will replicate an actual satellite operations center. While the Defense Department has numerous training facilities for cyberwarfare exercises, Parisi said, there is none where military researchers and operators can practice defending satellites using actual spacecraft in orbit.

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

“This provides a real, non-simulated, space-bound environment for this research,” said Parisi. “We’re going to work together with the space people and determine what ideas, what technologies, what next-generation cyber defense capabilities we can bring to space.”

The cyber-range concept includes four landers that 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 funding for the launch,” he said. Moulton estimates an additional $18 million will be needed to launch the satellites and deploy cloud-based ground stations. He said potential users of the system, such as the Space Systems Administration, the Space Development Agency and other Space Force agencies, are likely to provide funding.

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

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