SpaceX doesn’t operate like a traditional aerospace company. For one, the CEO is usually hamming it up on Twitter during launches and providing details that would usually go in a press release. SpaceX also live streams almost all of its launches, even the prototypes that have an unfortunate tendency to blow up lately. It wasn’t even encrypting the Falcon 9 telemetry feed… until now. Unfortunately, some digging by amateur radio tinkerers seems to have convinced SpaceX to step up its security.
It all started a few weeks ago when several Redditors managed to lock onto the 2232.5 MHz telemetry downlink from a Falcon 9 upper stage. Right away, they were able to pull out a few interesting plaintext snippets from the unencrypted feed. With a little more work, the radio enthusiasts were able to capture some amazing images from the spacecraft’s cameras.
After that discovery was public, other SpaceX fans tried to grab some data from the Starship during its prototype tests. However, SpaceX had chosen to encrypt that data. Even with the right wireless equipment, the decoded signal was just noise. Now, it appears the same thing is happening with the Falcon 9. When attempting to pull data from the most recent Falcon 9 launch, the original signal snoopers discovered it had also been encrypted. A series of tweets from SpaceX engineers suggest the decoding of the telemetry signal was the reason for the change.
Naturally, the amateur radio community is upset about the move. The general feeling among these groups is that SpaceX didn’t need to encrypt the signal because they weren’t doing anything wrong. This is true, but even the original decoders have to admit there could be bad actors who intend to misuse the rocket’s telemetry. I’d also wager someone at SpaceX panicked about the possibility sensitive proprietary data could leak out through its telemetry feed. SpaceX has national security contracts as well, and the government most likely wouldn’t appreciate seeing its secret assets on a decoded telemetry feed.
Sorry guys https://t.co/LcqpjyS3xK
— Stephen Barrett (@skiboysteve) March 26, 2021
There’s a growing sentiment among amateur radio operators that the new generation of spacecraft and satellites will be off-limits to civilians. Many of those involved in analyzing the telemetry signal have expressed disappointment that SpaceX would lock them out, but this could be par for the course going forward.
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