Solar bursts may threaten GPS / April 5, 2007

The Global Positioning System, relied on for everything from navigating cars and airplanes to transferring money between banks, may be threatened by powerful solar flares, a panel of scientists warned Wednesday. “Our increasingly technologically dependent society is becoming increasingly vulnerable to space weather,” David L. Johnson, director of the National Weather Service, said at a briefing. GPS receivers have become widely used in recent years, using satellite signals in navigating airplanes, ships and automobiles, and in using cell phones, mining, surveying and many other commercial uses. Indeed, banks use the system to synchronize money transfers, “so space weather can affect all of us, right down to our wallet,” said Anthea J. Coster, an atmospheric scientist at the Haystack Observatory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The cause for their concern, Johnson said, was an unexpected solar radio burst on December 6 that affected virtually every GPS receiver on the lighted half of Earth. Some receivers had a reduction in accuracy while others completely lost the ability to determine position, he said.

Solar activity rises and falls in 11-year cycles, with the next peak expected in 2011. If that increasing level of activity produces more such radio bursts the GPS system could be seriously affected, the researchers said. And protecting the system is no simple task, added Paul M. Kintner Jr., a professor of electrical engineering at Cornell University, who monitored the December event. There are two possible ways to shield the system, he said, both very expensive. Either alter all GPS antennas to screen out solar signals or replace all of the GPS satellites with ones that broadcast a stronger signal. That’s why it’s essential to learn more about the sun’s behavior quickly in an effort to find ways to predict such events, the researchers said. In addition to the GPS system, the December solar flare affected satellites and induced unexpected currents in the electrical grid, Johnson said. “The effects were more profound than we expected and more widespread than we expected,” added Kintner.

Dale E. Gary, chairman of the physics department of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said the burst produced 10 times more radio noise than any burst previously recorded. The difference between that burst and normal solar radio emissions “was like the difference between the noise level of a normal conversation and the noise level in the front row of a rock concert,” he said. “This is a wake-up call” to improve technology, commented Anthony J. Mannucci, group supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Patricia H. Doherty, co-director of the Institute for Scientific Research at Boston College, said the burst affected but did not shut down the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wide Area Augmentation System, which uses GPS signals to assist in navigation. Most of the WAAS ground stations were able to maintain contact with enough satellites to continue working, though their accuracy was somewhat affected, she said.

The stations have to maintain contact with at least four satellites to work, but usually monitor at least 10 to increase their accuracy, she said. Most were able to meet the minimum, she said. The briefing came at a Space Weather Enterprise Forum convened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to discuss the effects of solar activity. Because of its increasing importance, Johnson said, the Weather Service’s Space Environment Center was converted from a mainly research center in 2005 to an operational center reporting on solar activity and its impacts.

April 13, 2007 News Release

“Intelsat General Corp announced Wednesday that it has been selected for an industry-government collaboration to demonstrate the viability of conducting military communications through an Internet router in space. The Department of Defense project to test Internet routing in space (IRIS) will be managed by Intelsat General, and the payload will convert to commercial use once testing has been completed. The IRIS project is one of seven projects funded and announced in fiscal 2007 as a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) by the Department of Defense. The IRIS JCTD is a three-year program that allows the DoD to collaborate with Intelsat General and its industry team to demonstrate and assess the utility of the IRIS capability. Cisco will provide commercial IP networking software for the on-board router. In addition, SEAKR Engineering will manufacture the space-hardened router and integrate it into the IRIS payload. “IRIS extends the Internet into space, integrating satellite systems and the ground infrastructure for warfighters, first responders and others who need seamless and instant communications,” said Bill Shernit, President and CEO of Intelsat General. “IRIS will enable U.S. and allied military forces with diverse satellite equipment to seamlessly communicate over the Internet from the most remote regions of the world.”

The satellite scheduled to carry the IRIS payload, IS-14, is set for launch in the first quarter of 2009. It will be placed in geostationary orbit at 45 degrees West longitude with coverage of Europe, Africa and the Americas. Representing the next generation of space-based communications, IRIS will serve as a computer processor in the sky, merging communications being received on various frequency bands and transmitting them to multiple users based on data instructions embedded in the uplink. The IRIS payload will support network services for voice, video and data communications, enabling military units or allied forces to communicate with one another using Internet protocol and existing ground equipment. The IRIS payload will interconnect one C-band and two Ku-band coverage areas. The IRIS architecture and design allow for flexible IP packet (layer 3) routing or multicast distribution that can be reconfigured on demand. With the on-board processor routing the up and down communications links, the IRIS payload is expected to enhance satellite performance and reduce signal degradation from atmospheric conditions. “The IRIS architecture allows direct IP routing over satellite, eliminating the need for routing via a ground-based teleport, thereby dramatically increasing the efficiency and flexibility of the satellite communications link,” said Don Brown, Vice President of Hosted Payload Programs for Intelsat General. “IRIS is to the future of satellite-based communications what ARPANET was to the creation of the Internet in the 1960s.” The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) will have overall responsibility for coordinating use of the IRIS technology among the government user community and for developing means of leveraging the IRIS capability once the satellite is in space.”


US military security still poor after ‘biggest’ hack
BY John Leyden  / 13th April 2007

Accused Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon is continuing to fight against extradition to the US after losing an appeal last week. Only the Law Lords now stand between the Scot and a US trial for allegedly breaking into and damaging 97 US government computers between 2001 and 2002 and causing $700,000 worth of damage, in what US authorities have described as the “biggest military” computer hack ever. He allegedly infiltrated networks run by the US Army, US Navy, US Air Force, Department of Defense and NASA. US authorities described McKinnon as an uber-hacker who posed a threat to national security in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. McKinnon (AKA Solo) admits he infiltrated computer systems without permission. The 41-year-old former sysadmin said he gained access to military networks – using a Perl script to search for default passwords – but describes himself as a bumbling amateur motivated by curiosity about evidence of UFOs. He said numerous other hackers had access to the resources he was using and questions why the US authorities have singled him out for extradition. Any damage he did was purely accidental, McKinnon claims. If convicted, following extradition and a US trial, McKinnon faces a jail term of up to 45 years’ imprisonment.

According to a reformed computer hacker accused of similar crimes 10 years ago, McKinnon is been made a scapegoat for the shortcomings of US military security. Mathew Bevan, whose hacker handle is Kuji, was accused of breaking into US military computer systems but his 1997 case at Woolwich Crown Court was dropped after a legal battle lasting around 18 months. No attempt was made to extradite Bevan. After the case, Bevan became an ethical hacker and security consultant, first with Tiger Computer Security, and later on a freelance basis with his firm the Kuji Media Corporation. “Both Gary and I were accused of similar offences. The difference is his alleged crimes were committed in a different political climate, post 9-11. The decision to push extradition in Gary’s case is political,” Bevan told El Reg.

Bevan, like McKinnon, has an interest in free energy and evidence of UFOs. The similarities in the case go further. The crimes Bevan is alleged to have committed were cited as evidence of cyberterrorism in US senate hearings in 1996. “They haven’t found a cyberterrorist or ‘bad boy’ for a while and it looks like they are trying to make an example in Gary’s case,” he said. McKinnon should have been allowed to plead guilty in his own country and not be faced with the prospect of a long prison term in a US prison with “inhumane” conditions, Bevan argues. He says the military systems McKinnon is accused of hacking remain vulnerable to attack. “I’m sure there are a lot of people on these machines, some of who the US authorities allow to get in. The prosecution against Gary is about saving face for security lapses by the US military that remain as bad as they were 10 years ago,” Bevan said. “If this had happened with a corporation someone would have been sacked.” He added that US authorities are keen to talk up the cyberterrorism threat in order to protect information security budgets.

McKinnon, unlike a US citizen who faced similar charges, is in a particularly bad situation. “The authorities are trying to rip him away from his family and ruin his life. Gary committed his alleged offences in the UK, and according to the Computer Misuse Act, jurisdiction lies here. “Gary has suffered trial by media over the last five years, with everything weighed against him. In the UK the prosecution has to establish a trail of evidence. Unlike the US, hearsay evidence isn’t allowed in Britain,” Bevan said. Despite everything that’s happened to McKinnon, he reckons the case will fail to act as much of a deterrent to other would-be hackers. “Has it scared anyone? I shouldn’t think so,” Bevan said.

Final appeal
Lawyers for McKinnon are petitioning for leave to appeal to the House of Lords on grounds including the use of “deliberately coercive plea bargaining” tactics by US authorities during the course of the long running case. His lawyers argued that he had been subjected to “improper threats” that he would receive a much harsher sentence and be denied the opportunity to serve out the back-end of his jail term in the UK unless he played ball. Appeal court judges Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Mr Justice Goldring criticised US prosecution tactics but said these didn’t offer enough grounds for appeal against the Home Secretary’s decision to confirm a 2006 ruling that McKinnon ought to be extradited to the US.

The unemployed sysadmin has had these charges over his head since March 2002 when he was arrested by officers from the UK’s National High Tech Crime Unit. The case against him lay dormant until July 2005 when extradition proceedings commenced. McKinnon has suffered ill health over recent months as a result of the stress caused by the case, according to his lawyers. McKinnon’s supporters argue the case has wider political implications. “It is not just about Gary McKinnon, there are lots of other people, from computer hackers to legitimate businessmen, who will continue to fall foul of this sort of surrender of British sovereignty and obeisance before the extra- territorial demands of the US legal bureaucracy,” Mark, a member of London 2600 who runs the Free Gary blog, told us. “However the same lack of a requirement to show prima facie evidence also applies to European Union countries under the European Arrest Warrant,” he adds.

McKinnon’s lawyers chose not argue about whether he might be put on trial before a military tribunal but that this may well be argued in the House of Lords if leave to appeal (which is by no means guaranteed) is granted. “Basically the judges have said ‘we have to trust the USA Government to act in good faith’, until they show that they have broken their promises – which will by then, of course, be too late for Gary McKinnon. Unlike Babar Ahmad or even any of the British citizens who were held without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Gary is actually accused of directly ‘attacking the US military’ systems,” Mark notes. “Even if Gary faces a civilian court in the USA, his chances of being found not guilty or of getting a lenient sentence appear to be slim, given the prosecutions recommendations as to length of sentence.” But the whole effort to try McKinnon in the US might backfire on the US military by putting its security shortcomings under the spotlight. “If there is an actual trial in the USA, rather than a coerced or otherwise ‘plea bargain’, there are a large number of senior US military officers and civilian IT managers and auditors who are going to have to explain the incompetence or possible corruption or perhaps treason, which went on for years and months under their command, both before and after September 11,” Mark claims. “Even if this is suppressed in court, it might lead to Congressional
Committee hearings,” he adds.

The biggest solar proton storm in 15 years erupted last week. NASA researchers discuss what it might have done to someone on the Moon.
Sickening Solar Flares / January 27, 2005

NASA is returning to the Moon–not just robots, but people. In the decades ahead we can expect to see habitats, greenhouses and power stations up there. Astronauts will be out among the moondust and craters, exploring, prospecting, building. Last week, though, there were no humans walking around on the Moon. Good thing. On January 20th, 2005, a giant sunspot named “NOAA 720” exploded. The blast sparked an X-class solar flare, the most powerful kind, and hurled a billion-ton cloud of electrified gas (a “coronal mass ejection”) into space. Solar protons accelerated to nearly light speed by the explosion reached the Earth-Moon system minutes after the flare–the beginning of a days-long “proton storm.” Here on Earth, no one suffered. Our planet’s thick atmosphere and magnetic field protects us from protons and other forms of solar radiation. In fact, the storm was good. When the plodding coronal mass ejection arrived 36 hours later and hit Earth’s magnetic field, sky watchers in Europe saw the brightest and prettiest auroras in years.

The Moon is a different story. “The Moon is totally exposed to solar flares,” explains solar physicist David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center. “It has no atmosphere or magnetic field to deflect radiation.” Protons rushing at the Moon simply hit the ground–or whoever might be walking around outside. The Jan. 20th proton storm was by some measures the biggest since 1989. It was particularly rich in high-speed protons packing more than 100 million electron volts (100 MeV) of energy. Such protons can burrow through 11 centimeters of water. A thin-skinned spacesuit would have offered little resistance. “An astronaut caught outside when the storm hit would’ve gotten sick,” says Francis Cucinotta, NASA’s radiation health officer at the Johnson Space Center. At first, he’d feel fine, but a few days later symptoms of radiation sickness would appear: vomiting, fatigue, low blood counts. These symptoms might persist for days.

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), by the way, were safe. The ISS is heavily shielded, plus the station orbits Earth inside our planet’s protective magnetic field. “The crew probably absorbed no more than 1 rem,” says Cucinotta. One rem, short for Roentgen Equivalent Man, is the radiation dose that causes the same injury to human tissue as 1 roentgen of x-rays. A typical diagnostic CAT scan, the kind you might get to check for tumors, delivers about 1 rem [ref]. So for the crew of the ISS, the Jan. 20th proton storm was no worse than a trip to the doctor on Earth. On the Moon, Cucinotta estimates, an astronaut protected by no more than a space suit would have absorbed about 50 rem of ionizing radiation. That’s enough to cause radiation sickness. “But it would not have been fatal,” he adds. To die, you’d need to absorb, suddenly, 300 rem or more. The key word is suddenly. You can get 300 rem spread out over a number of days or weeks with little effect. Spreading the dose gives the body time to repair and replace its own damaged cells. But if that 300 rem comes all at once … “we estimate that 50% of people exposed would die within 60 days without medical care,” says Cucinotta. Such doses from a solar flare are possible. To wit: the legendary solar storm of August 1972.

It’s legendary (at NASA) because it happened during the Apollo program when astronauts were going back and forth to the Moon regularly. At the time, the crew of Apollo 16 had just returned to Earth in April while the crew of Apollo 17 was preparing for a moon-landing in December. Luckily, everyone was safely on Earth when the sun went haywire. “A large sunspot appeared on August 2, 1972, and for the next 10 days it erupted again and again,” recalls Hathaway. The spate of explosions caused, “a proton storm much worse than the one we’ve just experienced,” adds Cucinotta. Researchers have been studying it ever since. Cucinotta estimates that a moonwalker caught in the August 1972 storm might have absorbed 400 rem. Deadly? “Not necessarily,” he says. A quick trip back to Earth for medical care could have saved the hypothetical astronaut’s life.

Surely, though, no astronaut is going to walk around on the Moon when there’s a giant sunspot threatening to explode. “They’re going to stay inside their spaceship (or habitat),” says Cucinotta. An Apollo command module with its aluminum hull would have attenuated the 1972 storm from 400 rem to less than 35 rem at the astronaut’s blood-forming organs. That’s the difference between needing a bone marrow transplant … or just a headache pill. Modern spaceships are even safer. “We measure the shielding of our ships in units of areal density–or grams per centimeter-squared,” says Cucinotta. Big numbers, which represent thick hulls, are better: The hull of an Apollo command module rated 7 to 8 g/cm2. A modern space shuttle has 10 to 11 g/cm2. The hull of the ISS, in its most heavily shielded areas, has 15 g/cm2. Future moonbases will have storm shelters made of polyethelene and aluminum possibly exceeding 20 g/cm2. A typical space suit, meanwhile, has only 0.25 g/cm2, offering little protection. “That’s why you want to be indoors when the proton storm hits,” says Cucinotta. But the Moon beckons and when explorers get there they’re not going to want to stay indoors. A simple precaution: Like explorers on Earth, they can check the weather forecast–the space weather forecast. Are there any big ‘spots on the sun? What’s the chance of a proton storm? Is a coronal mass ejection coming? All clear? It’s time to step out.