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Hack-A-Sat competition highlights on-orbit hacking

  • Published
  • By Marc Denofio
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

ROME, N.Y. (AFRL) -- The Department of the Air Force, or DAF, in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, and Space Systems Command, opened registration Feb. 22, 2023, for the qualification round of the fourth annual “Hack-A-Sat” competition, the world’s first satellite hacking contest hosted for an on-orbit satellite.  

Hack-A-Sat is an opportunity for hackers, researchers and everyday enthusiasts to focus their skills, creativity and innovative thinking on solving space systems cybersecurity challenges and securing the future of space.  

“What we are trying to do is build trust, and doing it in a way that is cool and attracts the best talent to work on real-world cyber security issues for space security,” said Steve Colenzo, computer scientist, AFRL Information Directorate. “This type of competitive environment brings together the hacker and research communities to take on challenges we are facing with future capabilities in space and provide critical data and information for building out more resilient capabilities for our warfighters.” 

Hack-A-Sat 4 begins with a virtual qualification event April 1-2, 2023. The teams will compete in a jeopardy-style format, earning points based on speed and accuracy for a chance to win one of eight $10,000 cash prizes. 

The top five teams from the qualification event will advance to the Hack-A-Sat 4 finals in the Aerospace Village at DEF CON 31, an annual hacker’s convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, Aug. 11-13, 2023. Teams will then compete in an attack/defend style capture-the-flag competition that incorporates communication with the on-orbit satellite named Moonlighter. 

This year’s on-orbit environment presents a major change as previous Hack-A-Sat competitions took place on physical lab hardware called a flat-sat or in a virtual environment using digital twin software, Colenzo said. The on-orbit and digital twin combination make this year’s Hack-A-Sat a more realistic space environment for the competition.  

The top three ranked teams at the Hack-A-Sat 4 final event will receive $50,000 for first place, $30,000 for second place and $20,000 for third place. 

Moonlighter, the on-orbit satellite used for Hack-A-Sat 4, was designed and built to advance security researcher knowledge and skills in securing space systems. Moonlighter is scheduled to launch in early summer 2023 for the Hack-A-Sat finals. 

“Moonlighter is an excellent example of industry-government collaboration and a major step forward in our quest to advance space cybersecurity,” said Col. Kenny Decker, division chief, Integration and Futures Directorate at the U.S. Space Force. “It is purpose-built to provide security researchers access and opportunities like Hack-A-Sat to gain experience with on-orbit space systems. With the launch of Moonlighter, we’ve entered a new era of space cybersecurity.” 

Satellites provide the world with needed data transmission for capabilities, such as GPS and credit card transactions, Decker added, and the DAF embraces the benefit of ethical hacking to advance cyber and space technology for the military and industry. 

“Space cybersecurity is a global issue, which is why it is so important that Hack-A-Sat is open to the global security research community,” Decker said. “By sharing our tools and knowledge, we encourage these talented individuals to understand the nuances in building space system resilience and to work in this ever-important domain.” 

Registration for the qualifying event is open to the public. To register, find rules and eligibility, sign up and more information about all contest updates, visit

About AFRL 

The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit