10/12/21 Payload Newsletter

To: Payload Subscribers

October 12, 2021

Happy Tuesday, and welcome to the first edition of our daily newsletter! We have plenty on tap this week, but the first order of business is wishing bon voyage to Capt. James T. Kirk William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen, Audrey Powers, and Glen de Vries on New Shepard tomorrow.

Today’s newsletter:
⚔️ Op. Ghostshell
🤝 Varda, SpaceX


Operation Ghostshell

ICYMI: An Iranian hacking group has targeted a global array of aerospace and telecom companies since at least 2018, according to research published by Cybereason last week. 

  • The Boston cybersecurity firm refers to the previously unidentified cyber group as “MalKamak.” MalKamak’s espionage campaign was dubbed “Operation Ghostshell.”
  • Cybereason, which discovered the group earlier this year, didn’t name the companies affected. But Ghostshell compromised at least 10 firms and affected “dozens of others,” Bloomberg reported.

Op. Ghostshell objectives: Using a new type of spyware, Malkamak sought to access and siphon away IP, sensitive data, and technology from its targets. While the campaign was concentrated on Middle Eastern victims, Malkamak also went after companies in the US, EU, and Russia. 

Cyberspace + counter-space: Satellites, ground infrastructure, comms equipment, corporate servers, you name it…if it’s a space-related asset, it could eventually have a target on its back. From sophisticated hackers’ POV, the space industry represents an attractive target for more reasons than we can count. To name five: 

  1. For many satellites, and especially spacecraft on decades-old missions, hardware is frozen in time and reliant on dated security protocols. 
  2. Companies may not rely on the same hardening measures as intelligence agencies or militaries. 
  3. Critical infrastructure depends on space assets. Compromised satellites could become a central, cascading point of failure for everyday navigation and communication functions. 
  4. Space companies have complex supply chains and vendor ecosystems, which expands their threat surface. 
  5. Finally, of course, there are many geopolitical and national security elements at play. While unconfirmed, it’s highly likely that Ghostshell’s victims had sensitive dealings with their countries’ government agencies and national security communities. 

Fortunately, the worst-case “lights out” scenarios alluded to above have not come to pass. Still, vulnerabilities remain. Better safe than sorry.

Payload’s takeaway: The hardening of space assets—from software to ground stations—seems destined to grow with the commercialization of the final frontier. We’re especially interested to watch collaboration efforts between industry and government, but also where security practices might still be siloed and antiquated. 


Varda 🤝 SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Photo: SpaceX

Yesterday, Varda Space Industries said it would launch its first microgravity factory as a Falcon 9 rideshare mission in early 2023. Founded last year and incubated at Founders Fund, Varda has raised $50+ million from VCs. 

In selecting SpaceX, Varda “immediately went with what we were comfortable with,”cofounder and president Delian Asparouhov told Payload. “It was pretty quick…We probably started thinking about signing a launch agreement in June, and had it signed by July.”

  • Varda CEO/cofounder Will Bruey is an ex-SpaceX engineer. Some early Varda employees also have backgrounds working on launch integration at SpaceX, Asparouhov said.  
  • For future missions, as the market matures and evolves, Asparouhov said Varda may cast a wider net when picking launch providers. 

On operating tempo: Aspaurohov says Varda is “right on track,” save for business development convos, which “are going a lot faster than I honestly would have expected.” 

In August, Varda selected Rocket Lab to build the satellite busses for its first three “space factories.” Composed of a microgravity manufacturing module and re-entry capsule, Varda’s factory will be integrated with Rocket lab’s Photon satellite platform. 

Looking forward: Varda completed a preliminary design review this summer and plans to conduct a critical design review in January, per Asparouhov. After that, the company will begin building its spacecraft, integrate them with Photon, and finally, ship the final product to SpaceX. Varda’s second and third spacecraft are slated to launch by Q4 2024.


In Other News…

  • SpaceX is valued just north of $100 billion after recent secondary share sales, CNBC reported Friday. 
  • OneWeb signed a letter of intent to launch satellites with the commercial arm of ISRO, India’s space agency. While the agreement is non-binding, OneWeb could begin launching satellites on Indian rockets as soon as next year. 
  • The FCC is preparing to vote on Boeing’s application for a 147-satellite broadband constellation. The proposal, which dates back to 2017, seems likely to be approved.
  • The Norwegian government will provide Andøya Space with $42.9 million to build a spaceport in northern Norway.
  • Blue Origin has a toxic and dysfunctional culture, over 20 current and former employees told the Washington Post.

The Week Ahead

Today: ESA’s online Space2connect conference, which began yesterday, runs through Thursday. Planet Explore 2021, hosted by Planet Labs, starts today and runs through tomorrow. 

Wednesday: Blue Origin NS-18 is targeting liftoff at 8:30 am CDT / 13:30 UTC, from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in Van Horn, TX. 

Thursday: A Soyuz rocket will launch 36 OneWeb satellites into orbit from Vostochny Cosmodrome.

Saturday: Launch window opens for NASA’s Lucy mission, the first probe to study the Trojan asteroids. Lucy will launch on a ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Sunday: Soyuz MS-18 is scheduled to return to Earth with Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, actress Yulia Peresild, and producer Klim Shipenko.


View from Space

Credit: ESA/NASA–T. Pesquet

Behold a single frame from a timelapse of Europe at night. Taken from the ISS by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, the photo contains a “transient luminous event” (see: upper right corner). The event, which Pesquet called “a very rare occurrence,” is prompted by upper-atmospheric lightning.