Space has long been a battleground for disputes between the United States and its rivals, but news this week that the Chinese military may have been behind a hacking attack on NASA satellites has confirmed for some experts that a technological Cold War is well underway.
"The reason why space is the must-win region is because, especially for the West, much of our information is collected, transmitted and controlled through space," said Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Space "is where things are happening. The Chinese have been close analysts of foreign wars and they have reached conclusion that ability to establish space superiority is key to victory."
Cheng and other experts point to a growing number of suspicious incidents that have occurred to satellites in the past few years.
-In 2007, China fired a missile against one of its defunct weather satellite, blowing it up and creating a huge debris field that menaces other nations' satellites.
-In October 2007 and June 2008, NASA experienced several minutes of interference on its Landsat-7 and Terra AM-1 earth observation satellites on several occasions, according to Bloomberg News, which cited a draft report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The report doesn't blame China, but says the attack is consistent with Chinese military writings. Chinese officials denied the report, saying, "This report is untrue and has ulterior motives."
-In January 2010, there was another collision of Chinese missile and satellite.
-In August 2010, China figured out how to bump two of their satellites together without destroying them, a potential dress rehearsal for satellite hunter-killer technology.
While some incidents involve the Chinese disabling their own space vehicles, the latest information about the loss of control of NASA's satellites is more worrisome, Cheng said.
"It demonstrates the vulnerability of our satellites," he said. "Somebody who has the ability to hack into a satellite and take control of it can do several things. You could turn off the cameras, you could point the camera away from what you are looking for. Those are the least bad things you could do. You could orient the solar panels away so the whole thing powers down, then you have a dead piece of satellite."
Other experts say we shouldn't be surprised that China is testing U.S. capabilities in orbit. James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that such probes are probably a routine occurrence, but are often not made public.
He said that communications from the ground to most U.S. military satellites are encrypted, and therefore more protected against hackers. He said that earlier satellites, such the ones operated by NASA, may be using outdated security measures.
"These weren't military satellites," Lewis said in an e-mail. "And if hacking Landsat is the best you can do, it's not very scary. There are probably a half dozen countries that have experimented with interfering with satellites, and that may include the United States."
Andrew D'Uva, president of Providence Access Co., an Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm to satellite companies, says that most commercial satellites also have encrypted protection measures to prevent hacker attacks. He says that the interference with NASA's satellites could have come from other nations besides China, or from private individuals.
If China is fingered as the culprit, should the U.S. retaliate?
If there is unambiguous proof, yes it should be discouraged through escalating steps," D'Uva said. "But we are a long way from that."
To deter such attacks, or probes or incidents, the Pentagon recently set up the Joint Space Protection Program (JSPP). National Reconnaissance Office director Bruce Carlson said the JSPP is trying to figure out how to differentiate between attacks and accidents in space.
"It's becoming very congested [and] we recognize that it's becoming very congested because other countries are launching a lot of stuff, sometimes more than we do and it's becoming very competitive," Carlson said at a recent press event, according to the blog Defense Tech. "I don't think it's any secret that the Chinese are becoming more active in space and that concerns us because we're not absolutely sure of their intent."
But truth be told, U.S. officials are probably well aware of China's intentions in space, according to Lewis.
"The Chinese plan to attack our space assets in the event of a conflict. They also plan to attack our carriers and maybe critical infrastructure. This is pretty basic stuff -- militaries plan to fight their opponents, so it's hard to be too indignant."