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Partner Content: Space Systems are Critical

Why we need to act now to address their security, resilience, and ours

By Samuel Sanders Visner — MITRE Tech Fellow and Professor of Cybersecurity Policy, Operations, and Technology at Georgetown University. Stakeholders can reach him at

National space, government, and industry leaders are increasingly aware of how crucial space systems are to our national and economic security, our critical and business infrastructures, and our global commitments. They know that the security and resilience of these systems is vital to our country. The value of the space industry itself will approach $1T, possibly by mid-decade, if not well before 2030, with some 4,000 satellites in orbit, and constellations planned comprising tens of thousands of satellites. The new United States Space Priorities Framework makes clear that “Space underpins our national security and ability to respond decisively to crises around the world.” It adds “The United States will protect space-related critical infrastructure and strengthen the security of the U.S. space industrial base. Space systems are an essential component of U.S. critical infrastructure – by directly providing important services and by enabling other critical infrastructure sectors and industries.” How to meet these priorities, however, is an unanswered question.

One approach, favored by the Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center and other stakeholders, would identify space systems as a new critical infrastructure sector. Indeed, the requirement for such a designation is conveyed by the bipartisan bill sponsored by Congressmen Lieu (D-CA) and Calvert (R-CA). Another approach would be to name space systems as one of a smaller number of “systematically important critical infrastructures.” Given the dependence on space systems of most of our National Critical Functions, either designation would help foster development of the government policy and programmatic architecture, with effective sector risk management leadership, requisite to protecting U.S. interests in space.

Among many other key national benefits, space systems provide vital navigation and support for precision agriculture and transportation and are part of the national communications backbone. The criticality of these systems is accompanied by their real and potential vulnerability, made clear by a recent Russian anti-satellite weapon test that left 1,500 pieces of orbital debris.

“Critical” designation is important; the details of implementation are no less so. Here are some ideas. We should consider whether the security and resilience of space systems requires a regulatory approach, incentives, best practices, or some combination. Working with Aspen, MITRE is convening a group of national stakeholders form government and industry to consider these questions and others. In the interim, let’s consider using standards that reflect the NASA “brand,” as these are well elaborated, proven, and NASA is respected for the security and resilience of its own space systems. We should consider, too, innovative approaches to improving the profitability of commercial space systems and allow better security and resilience feature affordability. We need also to decide how government sector risk management leadership should be established. Until that issue is resolved, perhaps the question of security and resilience should be the responsibility directly of the Office of the Vice President, with continued policy support from the National Space Council.

MITRE’s own work in this field is already significant. We will work in FY22 with industry on safety management systems that will help with the verification and validation challenges of new, non-standard solutions, an approach that may prove useful to an expanding commercial space sector. We plan to use FY22 to act as a catalyst, helping industry mature space capabilities. This will be a complement to work MITRE does for our Federal sponsors.

We look forward to working with other stakeholders to develop a national architecture to support the security and resilience of the space systems on which our country depends.


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