A military space exercise, AsterX, to prevent and manage risks in space, took place in early March at Cité de l’espace in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
AsterX 2022 was the second edition of an annual exercise conducted by France to ensure the security of civilian and military satellites responsible for observing the Earth, surveillance, telecommunications etc..
Threats Which Have Become Realities
The exercise took place over six days during which those involved had to face up to sixteen scenarios, including “enemy” satellites approaching, cyber-attacks, etc.. Spearheaded by Space Command of the Air and Space Force, this was a tactical and operational exercise in military space operations with simulations of possible attacks against French and European space capabilities.
“This prepares us for scenarios which are current. These are fictional scenarios, with fictitious nations, but the events chosen for the exercise are perfectly up to date. These are threats which already exist,” Air Force Colonel Guillaume Bourdeloux, director of the exercise, insisted to the press.
24 February 2022: Cyber Attack in Space
24 February 2022 … All those involved in the AsterX exercise had this date in mind. On the day of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the American satellite network, Viasat, which operates the Ka-Sat satellite covering Europe and Ukraine in particular, was the victim of a malfunction. Due to a cyber-attack, confirmed the Space Command Commander, General Michel Friedling.
But risks of attacks in space are not new. Already, in 2017, a Russian satellite, Luch Olymp, came a bit too close to the Franco-Italian satellite, Athena Fidus, in orbit since 2014 and dedicated to military communications.
Moreover, on 15 November 2021 a Russian missile strike destroyed one of its old satellites, Tselina-D, in orbit since 1982, endangering other satellites and the International Space Station (ISS) with debris. And, above all, this success proved Russia’s capability of attacking a spacecraft in space, along with the United States, China and India.
AsterX: International, Military and Civil Mobilisation
AsterX 2022, organised as part of the French Presidency of The Council of the European Union, brought together participants from the United States and European countries such as Luxembourg, Portugal, Germany and Italy. In the large operations room hosted at Cité de l’espace in Toulouse, around 50 participants, facing computers, were confronted with complex, but realistic, situations. The space environment was reproduced and simulations were carried out of approaching “enemy” spacecraft which required avoidance manoeuvres, changing the orbit of “friendly” satellites which were targeted, or cyber-attacks. These are “very lifelike” scenarios to reality, emphasised Colonel Bourdeloux.
Most of those involved were military. But in the face of the issue of threat in space all sectors involved, such as the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) and industrial stakeholders such as ONERA, Safran, ArianeGroup and Airbus took part. Each added value to the exercise.
AsterX took place a few hundred metres from the Toulouse Space hub, where the CNES headquarters is located in particular. From 2025 it will house Space Command, an inter-services department of the French Air and Space Force, and Toulouse will house the NATO Centre of Excellence (NCE) for space.
Space Security Means Independence
Space security also requires independent access to space, indeed, currently partially lacking in Europe which depends on the United States and Russia to send astronauts aboard the ISS, particularly.
The tensions with Moscow, the Ukrainian crisis, show the limits of this dependence, as the cessation of Russian Soyuz flights from the European space base at the Guyana Space Centre (GSC) proves: the launch of the French military satellite CSO-3 will probably need to be carried out by Ariane 6 in two years, and not on a Soyuz in the near future. The launch of 36 satellites in the American OneWeb constellation from Baikonur was cancelled on 3 March. The launch of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Exomars 2022 mission with Russia could be postponed …
Cooperation in Monitoring
For the last day of the exercise, the French Minister of Armed Forces, Florence Parly visited Cité de l’espace with several European Ministers responsible for defence, including those of Luxembourg and Portugal, as well as Thierry Breton, European Commissioner responsible, among other things, for digital matters.
“Space is a contested environment,” Ms. Parly recalled at a round table, stressing that “what is happening in space can have extremely important consequences on our military capacity.” “Europe needs a space strategy (…) we have to protect (our current capacity), and put ourselves in a position to defend ourselves, and take action if necessary,” she added.
“Europe is a space power,” and “it’s about combining cyber and space when it comes to protecting itself,” said Thierry Breton during the round table, stressing the fact that space surveillance is “the key [to] anticipating possible attacks.”
“For all of us there will be a before and after 24 February 2022. Everyone has to accept that, including the space community,” he concluded.