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Software and hardware and hackers, Oh My!: AFIT EWI Fellow learns the art of satellite ground systems
Posted Thursday, January 09, 2020


By 1st Lt Clare Sakovich
AFIT Education with Industry Fellow at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems

As a first-of-its-kind program, the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) has always received attention for the fascinating work the satellites do that differs from any other program the United States Space Command has operated to date. Stemming from the work out in Dulles, Virginia that began almost 10 years ago, the program has grown to 4 operational satellites (with more in production) and 2 main operating locations in Colorado and New Mexico. The program provides Space Domain Awareness (SDA) with a massive data flow supporting national strategic objectives which defines the imperative nature of full ground and space segment functionality.

First Lieutenant Clare Sakovich, the Air Force Institute of Technology Education with Industry Fellow at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), was chosen specifically to work this program based on her experience from operations of GSSAP from the military side. When the time came to divide up her time at NGIS between the various teams within the program, it was obvious that the ground segment, the foundation for space operations, would be the first learning experience to tackle. Walking in with an operator perspective gave Sakovich a great baseline of knowledge on GSSAP, but the value of learning firsthand how the contractor works with the system, customers, and users is immeasurable. “I am very fortunate to get to see all sides of the program… it gives me a greater appreciation for all of the background work that goes into building up an entire architecture to support a space program,” commented Lt Sakovich.

The culmination of this phase of the program was a 5-week trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico and Aurora, Colorado. The trip to Albuquerque allowed for the opportunity to see a full hardware and software installation of an upgraded ground segment. The trip to Aurora provided a demonstration of the testing that a system undergoes prior to deployment at an operational site.

While in Albuquerque, Lt Sakovich applied her knowledge of the system as a help to the installation team and seized the opportunity to upgrade that knowledge from a basic operator level to that of a systems engineer. “I didn’t just observe the installation; I was side-by-side with the engineers, helping them to validate their software tools and the hardware that had been installed. I compounded the way I already work the system with the engineers’ ways of troubleshooting and working around problems,” she explained. In order to run a fully-fledged program as complex as GSSAP, there are countless lines of code, pieces of software, and file paths to troubleshoot; while those details are classified, the fact stands that a complete overhaul and install of a satellite ground system is a feat that relies highly on team communication, a strict schedule, and clear objectives. The contractor team worked tirelessly for several weeks, ending with Air Force users on the system, proving operational functionality.

In Aurora the following weeks, Lt Sakovich once again experienced the dualistic nature of being both a teacher and a student on the system. The exercise with the GSSAP industry and military partners consisted of two weeks of testing for vulnerabilities and documenting those findings. Sakovich took on the role of “mission expert” to teach the test team the details as to how all the various computer processes fit together to perform operations. The tests looked into a variety of potential threats and threw cyber experts at the system to expose and exploit their findings. “It was an unreal experience to learn all that goes on in the background of the ground segment (from the cyber perspective)… as an operator, you think your only vulnerabilities are on the surface level and how you could mess up the satellite with one wrong mouse click while sitting on console. There’s so much more to it than that, and this exercise built my confidence in the way we prepare for those threats.”

While Sakovich filled the “mission expert” role and taught what she knew to the team, almost every moment of the exercise provided a learning experience for her. The contractor partners explained the details of simulator operations, the differences between the operational system and this test platform, and the in-the-weeds knowledge of data flow and production. The test teams from both the contractor side and Air Force gave insights on methods for cyber intrusion (hacking, if you will) and best practices to prevent the opportunity for those “break-ins”. The testers even did a physical demonstration, displaying the ways a system could be vulnerable to physical tampering. Lastly, the Space Program Office (SPO) representatives provided the objectives and desired requirements for the test, offering insights on the high level objectives for the exercise and the prioritization of fixing any deficiencies identified in order to prepare for future program sustainment. 

Overall, both trips provided insights into the intricacy and importance of the ground segment for GSSAP. Lt Sakovich could not be more amazed or grateful for the opportunity to gain this appreciation. She praised the experience saying, “It is truly an incredible sight to see when so many individually intelligent minds come together to produce something as complicated as a ground system to support a space program. Participating in the integration and testing of a system from a bunch of hardware and software parts to full operations is an experience I will value throughout my career as an operator and a perspective I hope to share with many.”