SpaceX does not operate like a traditional aerospace company. For one, the CEO typically harasses him on Twitter during launches and provides details that would normally be in a press release. SpaceX also broadcasts almost all of its launches live, even the prototypes that have the unfortunate tendency to explode lately. It didn’t even encrypt the Falcon 9 telemetry stream… until now. Unfortunately, some research done by amateur radio tinkerers seems to have convinced SpaceX to reinforce 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 extract some interesting plaintext snippets from the stream. not encrypted. With a little more work, radio enthusiasts were able to capture some amazing footage from the spacecraft’s cameras.
After this discovery became public, other SpaceX fans attempted to retrieve data from the spacecraft during its prototype tests. However, SpaceX had chosen to encrypt this data. Even with the right wireless equipment, the decoded signal was just noise. Now it looks like the same is happening with the Falcon 9. While attempting to extract data from the most recent Falcon 9 launch, the original signal snoopers discovered that it had also been encrypted. A series of tweets from SpaceX engineers suggest that decoding the telemetry signal was the reason for the change.
Naturally, the amateur radio community is unhappy with this decision. The general feeling among these groups is that SpaceX didn’t need to encrypt the signal because they weren’t doing anything wrong. That’s true, but even the original set-top boxes have to admit that there might be some bad actors who intend to abuse the rocket’s telemetry. I’d also bet someone at SpaceX freaked out about the possibility that sensitive proprietary data could leak out through their telemetry feed. SpaceX also has national security contracts, and the government probably wouldn’t appreciate seeing its secret assets on a decoded telemetry stream.
Sorry guys https://t.co/LcqpjyS3xK
– Stephen Barrett (@skiboysteve) March 26, 2021
There is a growing sense among amateur radio operators that the new generation of spacecraft and satellites will be closed to civilians. Many people involved in analyzing the telemetry signal have expressed disappointment that SpaceX is locking them down, but that could be normal for the future.