Skip to main content

Cal Poly Awarded $340,000 Grant to Analyze and Innovate Cybersecurity Solutions for Space Satellites

Written By Jimmy Baker

Cal Poly has received a $340,091 grant to conduct a “Space Operations Challenge” series utilizing the university’s Digital Transformation Hub and California Cybersecurity Institute aimed to increase safety and security of thousands of satellites currently in orbit.

Along with the convenience that satellites provide comes a cybersecurity risk for companies, governments and everyday users.

“Space, satellites and cybersecurity are at the national forefront of focus for a multitude of reasons, including national defense and commercial applications,” Cal Poly California Cybersecurity Institute (CCI) Program Manager Martin Minnich said. “In today’s global economy, there are more services and demand for services being provided by satellites in orbit than ever before. Cal Poly, with our involvement in the development of CubeSats and our close proximity to Vandenberg Air Force Base and the 30th Space Wing, is strategically positioned to help with the national conversation in both civilian and governmental applications.” 

The grant funding comes from the California Advanced Supply Chain Analysis and Diversification Effort (CASCADE), a program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment through the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. Cal Poly students and faculty members will create six specific “challenges” and work with a private company or public agency to find a solution to each issue. The research opportunities will address:

  • satellite communication design
  • how to accelerate time to launch small and medium satellites
  • secure and reliable space to ground communication
  • secure satellite command and control across a distributed commercial platform
  • data exploitation and what the democratization of space means to the public at large
  • and what education and workforce requirements are needed as the use of space and cybersecurity becomes more prevalent.

“Considering how much of U.S. critical infrastructure relies on connectivity in or through space, the consequences of disrupting or degrading connectivity are prominent and the cybersecurity of space assets remains a top priority for national security,” said Eileen Sanchez, program director of CASCADE.

In August, Cal Poly became the first university in the world to sign a space situational awareness agreement with U.S. Strategic Command, joining more than 100 commercial and foreign nations working together to expand space situational awareness — the ability to monitor, understand and predict natural and manmade objects in orbit around the Earth. Cal Poly also launched a Satellite Data Solutions (SDS) Initiative built on Amazon Web Services to harness data from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to address the planet’s most critical challenges. These challenges include forecasting natural disasters and assessing their impact, helping relief workers seek alternative access routes for delivering cargo or medical supplies, and weather tracking in order to alert ships and aircraft. 

With the CASCADE grant, Cal Poly faculty members, students, the CCI, the Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub), and university partners will research and contribute to the future of the Central Coast, the state of California, and the U.S. on satellite design and launch capabilities, secure space communication, cloud-based space data analysis and processing, and secure satellite command and control operations.

“With Vandenberg Air Force Base nearby as a center of these burgeoning new space programs and activities, this project seeks to foster innovation, identify future job opportunities, and maintain the state’s and the country’s leadership in space and cyber programs,” Minnich said.

Also as part of the grant, Cal Poly will host a one-day seminar, “Innovation in Cybersecurity to Defend National and Commercial Space Assets” on campus on Friday, June 26, 2020. The symposium will feature America’s foremost experts in this newly emerging field and discuss the impact cybersecurity and space are having on our workforce and economy.   

“Technologies are changing fast in the commercial sector for small satellites, which has resulted in an explosion of the number of satellites and amount of data to analyze. This explosion has presented new engineering challenges in how to secure cyber-threatened content on the public internet,” said Cal Poly industrial engineering Professor Kurt Colvin, Ph.D., the lead faculty member on the grant. “The CASCADE grant enables Cal Poly faculty and students, in collaboration with the AWS Satelite Data Solutions initiative, to learn how to solve these new engineering problems. By the end of the grant, we hope to better understand the problem domain and have prototype solutions that we can pursue.”