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News | Dec. 5, 2023

Space Force Guardians hone cyber defense skills using on-orbit satellite

By 1st Lt. Charles Rivezzo Space Training and Readiness Command Public Affairs

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- In the realm of space operations, the significance of cyberspace security cannot be overstated. Often described as the ‘soft underbelly’ of space operations, it is an area of paramount importance, enabling and supporting space capabilities.

To cultivate their expertise, U.S. Space Force Cyber Guardians engaged in a unique training exercise, named Moonlighter, from Nov. 14-17. This exercise was designed to focus on refining the defensive and offensive skill sets of these Guardians, centered around the Moonlighter imaging satellite.

The Moonlighter imaging satellite, a 3U CubeSat, serves as an exclusive on-orbit cyber test platform. Its role includes facilitating defensive cyber operations and refining cyber-related tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Moonlighter holds the distinction of being the world's first and only hacking sandbox in space, having previously been featured in Space Systems Command’s Hack-a-Sat 4 competition.

The primary objective of the Moonlighter exercise was to enhance the U.S. Space Force's defensive cyber operations capabilities, said Capt. Eric Lu, 527th Space Aggressor Squadron adversary cyber flight technical director. 

Lu added that the Moonlighter exercise served as a foundational training event to implement the Aggressors' “know, teach, replicate mission,” aligning with the evolving threats in the space-cyber domain.
“Given the evolving threats in the space-cyber domain, this exercise served as an exceptional training environment,” said Lu. “By utilizing the Moonlighter satellite as a testbed for adversarial emulation and defense, it allowed our Guardians to execute defensive cyber tactics, techniques, and procedures to defend an on-orbit satellite, bolstering their readiness to counter sophisticated space-cyber threats.”

According to Lu, the Moonlighter exercise adopted a "Purple Team" approach, where offensive (Red Team) and defensive (Blue Team) forces collaborated to create a learning environment that encouraged growth and adaptability.

The 527th Space Aggressor Squadron Cyber Flight assumed the role of the Red Team, tasked with probing the Moonlighter satellite's defenses. Their goal was to replicate real-world threats and provide a realistic testing environment for the Blue Team.

The Blue Team, comprising units such as the 62nd Cyberspace Squadron (CYS), 64th CYS, 65th CYS, 68th CYS, 663rd CYS, 664th CYS, and Delta 6, Det. 1, worked to protect the Moonlighter satellite. Their mission involved developing and deploying strategies to defend against cyberattacks and safeguard the satellite's critical functions.

“The Moonlighter exercise reflects our commitment to securing our space assets amidst the evolving landscape of cyberspace,” Lu said. “By uniting the Red Team and the Blue Team, it not only increased Guardian readiness but also fostered a collaborative learning environment, ensuring our Guardians remain at the forefront of space-cyber defense.”