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NASA Mars Software Space Science

Could You Hack Into Mars Curiosity Rover? 452

MrSeb writes "NASA's Curiosity rover has now been on the surface of Mars for just over a week. It hasn't moved an inch after landing, instead focusing on orienting itself (and NASA's scientists) by taking instrument readings and snapping images of its surroundings. The first beautiful full-color images of Gale Crater are starting to trickle in, and NASA has already picked out some interesting rock formations that it will investigate further in the next few days. Over the weekend and continuing throughout today, however, Curiosity is attempting something very risky indeed: A firmware upgrade. This got me thinking: If NASA can transmit new software to a Mars rover that's hundreds of millions of miles away... why can't a hacker do the same thing? In short, there's no reason a hacker couldn't take control of Curiosity, or lock NASA out. All you would need is your own massive 230-foot dish antenna and a 400-kilowatt transmitter — or, perhaps more realistically, you could hack into NASA's computer systems, which is exactly what Chinese hackers did 13 times in 2011."
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Could You Hack Into Mars Curiosity Rover?

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  • by Rob Riggs ( 6418 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @04:24PM (#40977123) Homepage Journal
    We've got plenty of satellites around here that can be updated remotely, and which don't required massive, high-gain antennas to reach.
  • Oh yeah... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by raydobbs ( 99133 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @04:29PM (#40977193) Homepage Journal problem... I am -so- sure they didn't secure the thing with a passcode or some other sort of sophisticated two-factor method to prevent unauthorized access. Special channels set up only for certain kinds of communication, byte-code written specifically to talk to other highly specialized machinery running custom software... I mean, it's not like they are rocket scientists....oh...wait...

  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @04:35PM (#40977247) Homepage Journal

    It's bad enough when I have a few seconds of internet lag, let alone the amount of time it would take to send instructions to Rover and wait for a return.

    plan large pauses before timing out

  • by QuantumPion ( 805098 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @04:37PM (#40977291)

    Our centrifuge controllers aren't on the internet, they couldn't possibly be affected by an e-mail worm.

  • Re:dd (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @05:03PM (#40977545) Journal

    Since you seem to know things, I'll ask here. Why are they using a dish antenna to communicate with the rover. Would it be more effective to use lasers? Or is the precision needed to hit a reasonable size target at those distances just too much?

  • by Lord Lode ( 1290856 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @05:04PM (#40977565)

    Actually I think every /. reader already thought about the ideas of the summary least I did. Briefly, then thinking "it's probably encrypted" and not bothering further.

    I would find it a huge shame if someone managed to ruin this project, by the way, and that person will be quite universally disliked...

  • by Threni ( 635302 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @05:11PM (#40977625)

    If Iran/China/etc did it, they'd be disliked, but by no means universally.

  • What gets into the real reason nobody did it yet (and NASA didn't protect against it). What gain can there be in hacking Curiosity?

    It will ceratainly expose your high profile hackers (that could be stealing rocket technology instead) and instantly turn the entire world against you. As a reward you'll get a low capacity computer 14 light minutes away, and some sensors that will be more usefull to you in the hands they are now.

    You'll also get some news exposition, of course. But if you are willing to turn the entire world against you, there are plenty of easier ways that'll get way more exposition.

  • by oneiros27 ( 46144 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @05:33PM (#40977825) Homepage

    Standard operating procedure for space missions.

    1. Build the payload.
    2. Test it.
    3. Wait for launch
    4. Test it some more because of launch delays.
    5. Finally launch it.
    6. Wait for it to get into position.
    7. Collect data

    In the case of Curiosity, it launched in November 2011. They've had month of just sitting around, waiting for it to get into place ... which gives them time to go over the code (which was previously tested before launch), and optimize it.

    It's possible that they might make some changes ... eg, send back uncompressed images initially, but then figure out which compression scheme gives them the best compression without introducing problematic noise (and operates within the hardware limits)

    Or, you could have a bunch of scientists and programmers twiddle their thumbs for the better part of a year, as they wait for the launch, then wait for it to get into position.

  • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @05:53PM (#40978033)
    Political motivations. Plenty of hackers around the world would love to make the US government look incompetent - destroying a very expensive scientific mission like Curiosity, especially one for which there is such a high level of public awareness, would achieve that aim. No need to even hack it with precision (Amusing as it would be if the next image returned was Goatse), just fill the firmware with garbage and brick it.
  • by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @06:17PM (#40978269)

    What has this ever stopped hackers? They don't need gains they just want the lulz.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 13, 2012 @06:36PM (#40978473)

    Hmm, you must be some sort of imbecile. Hardened ICs have extra circuitry indeed. You add several protection diodes to _every_ _single_ _gate_, the MOS circuit components (gates, lanes, etc) are somewhat different on a hardened IC as well. The I/O gates are redesigned to be a lot more robust to interference, and that takes a lot more silicon space. And you have to use bigger topologies that have far less leakage current and far more passive resistance against state change caused by hard radiation.

    Hardened flash has bigger SLC cells than the standard enterprise SLC flash, on top of the usual hardening of the decoders, etc that make up the rest of the flash chip. It is easily 2000x more expensive than the surplus MLC crap you have on your desk, and that's *before* you factor in the costs of actually testing it against hard-radiation sources.

    No, NASA engineers are not infallible, and NASA management is really not up to snuff nowadays. But they are much better at it than YOU.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 13, 2012 @06:43PM (#40978513)

    Curiosity has 2GB of onboard radiation-hardened Flash storage - not enough to fit both the Flight software and the Rover software at the same time. So they devised a system where they would fly the rover to Mars with the Flight software, and considering they wouldn't be performing a return trip, decided that they could remote-wipe the flight data and install rover software in its place.

    So... the rover was responsible for the flight systems of its own delivery mechanism?
    If that's the case (which I cannot confirm nor deny, lacking NASA's rover specs), then it's stupid. Having the inter-planetary firmware update ability as a fallback is a good idea, but making it your default, especially knowing all the shit that could very easily go wrong and turn Curiosity into a multi-billion dollar brick? Stupid.

    So in a system where every ounce counts they should have a whole second computer, when there is a plan where they can use just one? Between your opinion and the rocket scientists, I'm siding with the rocket scientists.

    Due to Curiosity's nature, the onboard electronic systems need to be radiation-hardened. Not jjust "tin-foil cover" hardened. I'm talking engineered from the ground-up to resist data corruption from external radiation sources.

    No shit, thanks Captain Obvious. Hard to recognize you without the mask and cape.
    And of course, the people working at NASA are incapable of making mistakes or poor decisions, right?

    They have made some pretty huge mistakes. Still, I side with the rocket scientists over obnoxious immature guy on the internet.

    This comes at extreme cost, both financially and physically. Every little bit of extra RAM or Flash storage adds weight to the rover unit, and by extent, tons (literally) of extra fuel to carry it that full 225,000,000km.

    looks at identical 2GB and 8GB flash drives sitting on desk ...
    Citation needed.

    I suspect that NASA didn't order the radiation-hardened RAM off of Newegg. They may only manufacture this in 2 GB modules, per spec. Surely the fact that 4 != 1 can get past your wall of smarminess.

    It's not as easy as plugging in a thumb drive or popping an extra disk in there. If it really were, do you think the rocket scientists at NASA would have thought about that before they shot a billion-dollar robot into the sky?

    "rocket scientist" != infallible, omniscient deity. I know this is probably a tough pill to swallow, but just because someone has a particular title next to their name, does not, in any way, indicate their ability to complete every task sans mistakes and oversights.

    But "Rocket scientist" > "obnoxious big mouth on the internet". You still haven't provided any evidence to support your claim that you know more about designing Mars rovers than the team at NASA. You haven't provided any evidence to support your claim that the amount of RAM was chosen in error. You have provided much irrelevant bleating.

    I know you think you're being all geeky and clever, but seriously.

    Actually, I was making a joke (figured the PS3 reference was a dead giveaway). You know, one of those little sentences or short stories that are made with the intent of causing the audience's corner mouth muscles to pull up slightly, and encourage a repetitive "ha ha" sound to be emitted from the throat?

    Of course, you may be one of those poor, sad, creatures who are apparently incapable of anything resembling happiness or humor. If so, please disregard (and get a damn sense of humor)

    I thought the PS3 reference was funny. You should have stopped there.

    If you aspire to second-guess every engineering decision that NASA makes, per

  • by profplump ( 309017 ) <> on Monday August 13, 2012 @06:49PM (#40978579)

    Is there some benefit to pubkey over simpler symmetric encryption systems, given that NASA was in a position to do a secure key exchange before the rover left?

  • by Amouth ( 879122 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @07:00PM (#40978671)

    Sorry - script kiddies want lulz - hackers do it because it is there, or for the money.

  • by AaronLS ( 1804210 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @07:02PM (#40978697)

    This is along the lines of some small business saying "Why would someone want to hack my useless forum?" and then a week later it's full of malware and porn ads.

    There's a huge amount of money in this project. It would be a huge risk to leave it wide open on the pretense that no one wants to, simply because you believe that you have both imagined every possible scenario and also believe the potential hacker will come to the same "not worth it" conclusion you did in each scenario. Those are two very big assumptions.

  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @07:14PM (#40978829)
    There are plenty of deeply flawed people out there who would break it just to break something that was important, damn the consequences.

    "Mommy and Daddy didn't love me, so fuck everyone!"
  • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Monday August 13, 2012 @07:19PM (#40978871) Homepage Journal

    What gets into the real reason nobody did it yet (and NASA didn't protect against it).

    Who's to say nobody did it? There are many probes that NASA have lost contact with, and can only speculate at causes. I would think that some of the older models didn't have all that high security, both because they were launched before the time of BBSes and network break-ins becoming common enough that every engineer would think about it, but also because the locks back then weren't like they are now.

  • by drkstr1 ( 2072368 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2012 @01:34AM (#40981409)
    Oh, come on. Who said anything about breaking it? If you wouldn't jump at the chance to "flip some bits" and scribble your name in the dirt ON MARS, then you can turn in your geek card, sir.
  • by captainpanic ( 1173915 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2012 @07:00AM (#40982533)

    All I can say is: Stop Watching FOX News.

    China, Iran and some other countries are only your enemy because you yourselves declared them the enemy. They have no interest to sabotage a peaceful scientific mission.

  • by Ginger Unicorn ( 952287 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2012 @07:14AM (#40982629)

    when did you see someone break something important just for the sake of it?

    You're going to have to define "important" and "for the sake of it". I'm no cynic but still for any reasonable definition of those two terms I find it hard to believe you are that sheltered and naive. All I can say is, I'm envious of someone who has never had to deal with troubled, hateful, antisocial, misanthropist and/or disenfranchised people ever in their life, because the world has more than it's fair share.

Always leave room to add an explanation if it doesn't work out.