NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) has been providing astrophysicists with the ability to communicate with interstellar spacecraft missions since 1958. As time and technology have advanced, the DSN, which is essentially a collection of terrestrial communication facilities operating on uncommon frequencies, has received enhancements to bolster its long-range data transmission capabilities.
The DSN allows us to receive communications originating from something as close as the International Space Station to the farthest man-made object from Earth—Voyager 1. In 2013, NASA confirmed that Voyager 1 had left the reaches of our solar winds and officially entered interstellar space. After over 39 years in space, it is now over 12 billion miles away from Earth, but thanks to the DSN, communication has been maintained. Enhancements to the DSN also allow NASA to communicate with devices like the Voyager missions for much longer, and in more ways, than was initially believed possible. For example, Voyager 2—currently over 10 billion miles away from Earth—still receives upgrades and fixes.
However, maintaining communication is no longer NASA’s sole focus. With interests on the ground shifting more towards data protection, the DSN recently received cybersecurity facelift. NASA has partnered with AT&T to develop a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for its DSN. This project was completed this year.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between different locations, which allows for much faster and more secure communications. It is highly important for NASA to implement this technology to protect against malicious actors. Without a VPN, the network could more easily be infiltrated and critical data could be compromised. In addition, in conjunction with upcoming hardware upgrades and network expansion plans, this VPN will also aid in tripling the current data transmission rates within the DSN.
Unfortunately, NASA has already fallen victim to a number of cyber attacks, many of which were Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) originating from other nation states. Login credentials were confiscated and used by unauthorized individuals to alter configurations and even acquire full access and control of internal systems. Another attack targeting NASA resulted in the theft of International Space Station control codes, which were hosted on a stolen mobile device.
Hackers fueled by conspiracy theories that NASA is withholding significant information about everything from international terrorist organizations to alien life on Earth, have also targeted the organization’s website and networks.
It is becoming essential that everyone, from individuals to large corporations and government entities, enhance the security protecting their information. While NASA, an organization that has already been targeted a significant number of times, is essentially playing catch up with the recently added Deep Space Network VPN, it is encouraging to see them taking the appropriate steps forward to protect critical systems and information from here on out. With cyberattacks on the rise, no one is safe and erring on the side of caution (and borderline paranoia) might be the way of the future.
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