back to article Boffins fix dead satellite using 'dirty hack' in space

Engineers and ground controllers at the European Space Agency are overjoyed to announce that they have managed to bring an unexpectedly defunct, critical science satellite orbiting the Earth back to life – by hacking it. Graphic depicting the Cluster satellite constellation in action. Credit: ESA Forget user logins, this is …


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  1. Patrick O'Reilly

    Wrong Samba

    Not the first time Samba's been hacked :D

    1. Field Commander A9

      Here's someting that they should've tried before stating that dirt-hack.....

      "apt-get install samba-client"

  2. Graham Marsden

    Now *that*...

    ... is what "hacking" is really about!

    It's just a shame that the general media have no clue and use the same word to describe DDoS attacks etc...

  3. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Standard support desk response

    Did you try switching it off and back on again?

    1. T.a.f.T.

      It was off

      That was the problem... the on button is in space and there is no way to reach it! Last time they let the work experience kid fault find using the help guide.

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        Kid you not but....

        NASA launched a satellite that was turned off, and the "on" button was on the side of the satellite; they had to retrieve it using the shuttle to turn it on!

        *Some poetic license employed to make this appear funnier than it really was (the switch was supposed to operate as the satellite separated from it's launcher, but didn't)

    2. Anonymous Coward

      I think thats what caused the problem...

      They tried to reboot it by switching it off, then realised a little to late that the on switch was in orbit.

      Its a little bit further and harder to get to than gaining entry to the secure server room in the basement of your office.

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        @AC 07:35

        You think it's obvious, but didn't somebody once send a telecommand to switch off the recievers on a piece of kit to save power, without thinking about how the kit would receive the telecommand to turn them back on (or do anything else) ?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up

          love it

          Dont you just love it when some so called super intelligent boffin, the best of the best, makes a total balls up of common sense...

          Its like how NASA spent $10M (or whatever it was) to get a pen to work is space... whereas the Russians used a pencil!

          1. Midnight

            @AC 13:01

            "Its like how NASA spent $10M (or whatever it was) to get a pen to work is space... whereas the Russians used a pencil!"

            You're close, but off on a few small details The "Fisher Space Pen" was developed independently and then sold to NASA for the staggering cost of $1.98 a piece. American astronauts used to carry pencils with them but eventually realized that filling their space capsules with conductive and easily broken graphite sticks wrapped up in flammable wood wasn't as good an idea as they had originally imagined.

            The Russian solution wasn't to use a pencil, it was to carry grease pencils for writing on plastic sheets. By 1969 they switched to buying the same Fisher Space Pen that their American counterparts did.

            So to correct your little anecdote, "Its like how NASA spent about two dollars for a commercial pen that could write in space... whereas the Russians imported exactly the same pen."

            Not quite as punchy, but it does have the advantage of having more than a passing acquaintance with what actually happened.

            1. Anonymous Coward

              yes yes yes...

              i did indeed know it has been debunked, but you cant have two icons so I tossed a coin and the troll one lost !!!

          2. Mike Moyle

            re: love it

            "Its like how NASA spent $10M (or whatever it was) to get a pen to work is space... whereas the Russians used a pencil!"

            This, again, FFS...? This has been debunked so many times -- even here in el Reg's comments pages, even an AC should have learned it by now.


            Like the Russians, NASA used pencils before inventor Paul Fisher presented them with his privately-funded and designed pressurized pen for consideration. Like the Americans, the Russian space program bought and still currently uses Fisher's pen.

            Astronaut Buzz Aldrin also, reportedly, confirmed to author Spider Robinson at a conference once, the rumor that a Fisher pen was used to fire the main liftoff engines for the Apollo 11 Lunar Module when the original toggle switch got broken off while he and Neil Armstrong were removing their bulky EVA packs in the cramped crew compartment -- a task that would likely have been impossible with a pencil.

  4. Anon

    And the solution was?

    There's no point only telling us it was a "dirty hack" - we need the details so if the same thing happens on our satellites we know how to fix it too.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      If they go giving that sort of info away

      how are they going to maintain their indispensability as Satellite Operators From Hell? Much less blackmail the Boss into giving them a payrise...

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Bad Samba, Bad!

      Yes. we want to know!

      ESA is probably sitting on the info considering it a "confidential/restricted" or some such crap. Or they phoned the DoD to use one of their rumored manipulator-equipped orbital "Arrrhh! Grappling Hooks!!" vehicles.

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Disclosure policy

      I hear they've written a full description for BUGTRAQ, but they're giving the vendor 30 days to ship a fix.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Mini ice age

    This is good news, especially since it can shed more light on the reason behind the predicted-to-be-coming mini ice age.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    My lasting regret

    is that I turned down a job with a firm called Marcol (whatever happened to - google shows little) which would have been working for the ESA.

    Great stuff lads !!!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward

      @AC 12:57

      If its any consolation, don't carry that regret. I work for the ESA and most of the time its like having your teeth pulled. Unless you like generating mountains of documentation that no-one will ever read, then you should regret it.

      Anon ? Of course.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      re MARCONI

      They had a super management who, judging by their pay-off, basically wasn't at fault for reality being different to their vision and company went into a nose dive trying to ride telecoms bubble (or something like that anyway)

  7. jubtastic1

    SAMBA cluster fucked

    Power cycle hack makes it all better.

    #alt heading

  8. Chris 3

    I just wish

    You had given us more detail on what the clever hack entailed. I love that kind of stuff.

  9. NoneSuch Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Yay for the White Hats...

    A finer piece of beneficial hacking boffinry has seldom been seen.

  10. Robert E A Harvey


    Good effort lads. I am reminded of John Aaron saving the launch of Apollo 12.

    oh, and just incidentally, !SPACE!

    1. Fat Jez

      John Aaron

      Can't beat setting SCE to Aux! ;o)

  11. Andy Farley

    Yes but

    what did they DO?

  12. David 39

    I used to eat golf balls?

    IT? Non Standard Procedure? So they did "something else" rather than reboot.

    So next time I restart an sql service instead of rebooting it can I claim a dirty hack? :)

    1. James 93


      So long as you use management services and not configuration manager!

  13. Jon Brindley

    Dirty Hack

    I thought a "dirty hack" was an unwash journalist ..

    1. Fatman

      "Dirty Hack"

      In some parts of 'merkin' land, an "Dirty Hack" is an unwashed (taxi) cab driver.

  14. heyrick Silver badge

    Manuals... Pffff!

    Real hackers know that schematics and sources are the only "manuals" to be trusted, but only if they match what you're looking at.

  15. Roger Greenwood

    "dormant software"


    Real engineers know when all else fails you can fall back on the ultimate methodology :- J.F.D.I.

  16. Mystic Megabyte

    The secret hack

    They just sent it an out of parameter command like "engage ludicrous speed", the system crashed and re-booted. It can also be done by holding the Turbo button down.

    1. dssf

      And, I was thinking of trying to liken it a vestigial tailbone of DNA code...

      "Warhaut and his fellow satellite experts feared that there had been a paralysing short circuit aboard the spacecraft, but managed to use a piece of dormant software in its computers to find out that in fact all five power switches on the WEC had locked closed – a condition that was considered unrecoverable according to the manual. The satellite simply was not supposed to be able to come back from that situation."

      A human might not NEED a vestigial tailbone, but an unconscious one might be quickly roused (waken up, not gotten up, hehehe) by it being zapped with a few bolts or volts... (the overly KINKY humans might be STABBED or severed or savaged by one)... So much

      But, calling this a dirty hack makes it sound like dirty, pointless code fragments were not removed and were not "how tos", hehehe

  17. ahbond

    This article is lame - where are the tech details that us geeks really want?

    You tease the the readers with an account of a 'Dirty Hack', but then completely fail to disclose ANY of the details...


  18. Anonymous Coward


    Dormant software? Something likely to hit a INT13H in an obfuscated circuit or something? Wouldn't that make the hack both hardware and software?

    Ow, I am curious... Dang, I'm still dizzy.

  19. Eddy Ito
    Black Helicopters

    They should have kept quiet

    It won't be long before they are picked up, have all their computers confiscated, and are questioned for hours on end for violating some law. Don't worry they'll be released because the prosecutor will figure out he doesn't have jurisdiction in space but it might take a year to get the computers back.

  20. Antoinette Lacroix

    Hack ?

    Standard: Run 500 tests followed by auto power-on if successful.

    Hack: Send "power-on" command manually.

    Some hack, huh ?

  21. b0llchit Silver badge


    But,... but... hacking in Germany is not allowed. I guess the offices in Darmstadt will be raided sooner than later. One law fits all and that.

    BTW, I'm waiting for a pastebin of juicy database info from orbit.

  22. Thecowking

    I have to agree with the consensus

    Knowing what they did is mildly interesting, knowing how they did it would be fascinating.

  23. Anonymous Coward

    details, details...

    I assume they wont hand over the details of the "dirty hack" because it would involve revealing that the login user-name and password were admin & admin and someone change it, forgetting to write it on the post it note stuck to the side of the monitor. so they had to use a copy of backtrack to hack it....

  24. Hi, I'm Bob!

    Go NASA!

    That is all.

    1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      go NASA ?

      Where do you want NASA to go?

      Also don't ask them to go too far, or they will have to get a lift from Roscosmos :)

  25. Kurt 5

    Odyssey 5 reference

    They just sent the appropriate command - "leviathan"

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dirty Hack?

    "Dirty hack" seems to refer to anything that isn't in the book of standard procedures. The guys who wrote the book of procedures wrote a new procedure to cope with an unforeseen situation and tested it on one of the other spacecraft. It's not rocket science - because that's the work of the Launcher guys!

  27. Mr Young

    Dirty Hack!

    Sounds like something that actually worked but wasn't learned in school?

  28. Wize

    Did they send up...

    ...Clint Eastward and co?

  29. Homer 1

    The hack was...

    They used a redundant holographic emitter boosted through the deflector array to deliberately misalign the EPS manifold and cause a warp-core overload, which automatically shut down the reactor, at which point the power couplings disengaged and the system was reset by the secondary command processor in a bio-neural gel pack.



    1. Anonymous Coward


      They just reversed the polarity. The switches then go from 'Off' to 'On'...

  30. Gordon Barret

    No Power

    This all sounds more than a little "iffy" to me -

    do they actually mean the power switches were locked "open" and not "closed" since that would then be in the "off" state? The ESA article mentions "the WEC package on Cluster's number 3 satellite, Samba, failed to switch on".

    Then if the power was off:

    "all five power switches on the WEC had locked closed" (open) then how exactly was this piece of "dormant software" executed to miraculously turn the power back on?

  31. henchan


    For want of a dirty hacker, the dirty hack was not lost.

    For want of the dirty hack, an open power switch was not lost.

    For want of the open power switch, a WEC was not lost.

    For want of the WEC, a Samba was not lost.

    For want of the Samba, a Cluster was not fucked.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Depending on how ESA is funded (taxpayers?) you might be able to put in a FOIA request or you could ask, AC 14:18, where to find the 'mountains of documentation' he/she produces.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge



      With returns going to companies across Europe based on the per-country input (so-called "georeturns")

  33. Adrian Esdaile

    Give those hackers a beer or 19...

    "the on button is in space and there is no way to reach it! "

    TFC to the designer of that little piece of brilliance; maybe it was 'stylistically and artistically correct' to put an on/off switch with no failsafe somewhere slightly inaccessible... I'm sure Apple would!

    Yay for the hackers who are always the ones to fix problems in the end!

    Beer! And plenty of it!

  34. jake Silver badge

    No such animal as a "dirty hack", by definition.

    "Hacking" is fiddling about with people[0] and hardware[1], trying to make it do what it wasn't intended to do. Hacks that work are good hacks[2], hacks that don't work[3] need refinement.

    Details on the sat-restart hack, please? The curiosity bug is strong around here.

    [0] I won't get into social engineering here ... too many bugs for a couple paragraphs ;-)

    [1] There is no such thing as "software" ... software is merely the current state of the hardware.

    [2] My 3.5L/215ci Buick powered 1972 Datsun 510 is a "good hack".

    [3] Government here in the USofA needs refinement ...

  35. Southern
    Thumb Up

    Title required

    Speaking as someone who lived in Darmstadt during my student years, I am surprised to hear that there are such awesome boffins working in Germany.

    Thumbs up, du prima Kumpel!

  36. Andus McCoatover

    In real engineering...

    ...there's no such word as "Karnt"

    Fuc*king lovely jubbly! RESULT!!!

  37. Valf0B16
    Thumb Up



    Seriously, though. Very cool. I wonder if they used SSH? ;)

  38. ColonelClaw

    Galactically shite

    "A loss of any of the quartet can be enough to invalidate the data from the others"

    Awesome system they designed there

  39. John I'm only dancing

    In space..

    Noone can hear you scream, "Why the fuck won't you boot up"

  40. 88mm a.k.a. Minister for Misbehaviour

    The ESA Goonshow (Nightshift Edition) - apologies to Spike, Python, Tarentino et al

    Under the erratic glow from the wind-powered monitor screens, everything looks like a 1980's disco in Zagreb with a candle in a shoebox for a strobelight. Two nightshift operators are surfing Anonymous Ethiopia and Justin Beiber's Facebook page respectively.

    Goon 1 - "Apparently Anon have just declared open season on Oxfam. They're claiming some child trafficking and arms money laundering deal where Oxfam have been trading Land Cruisers for AK47s, kids and soap.

    Goon 2 - "Everyone knows Anon is a CIA funded op. Looks like someone is getting burned. Toyota was the spooks company car of choice and like they say, "We don't forgive. "We don't forget". <Both LOL>

    Goon 2 - But What the fuck do Oxfam want with AK47's? …

    Goon 1 - It doesn't say, perhaps it's a smoke screen for the 4x4s. You know, with the number of arms shipments these days what's one more container of small arms? But a ship load of brand new Land Cruisers, well. That's bound to get some Somali pirates' attention.

    <Short silence while Goon 2 ignores the fact that non of the above made any sense>

    Goon 2 - It says here Beiber has brought out a new shade of nail varnish. I'm guessing that last batch was contaminated when the last round of HARRP instigated Pacific Rim earthquakes disrupted the varnish response frequency. It's like the Recco avalanche detectors only for mini-skirted jail bait.

    <Sound of a Submarine Klaxxon accompanies a barely visible red icon on the large plasma that says Defcon 1>

    Goon 1 - <High pitched Harry Secombe silly voice> "The satellite is down!"

    Goon 2 - <Rimmer - Red Dwarf voice> "Aliens." "Aliens or a virus, it's always Aliens or a virus"

    Goon 1 - "The last time you said that it was 'cause you couldn't get a GPS signal in the basement…

    Goon 2 - "Aliens or virus or Anonymous…or Lulzsec. Or the NSA"

    Goon 1 - "You left out MI6, GCHQ and CESG"

    Goon 2 - "No I didn't. That lot are too busy watching Nigella box-sets and dribbling down their OTP sheets." <Breathless Nigella voice> "Dust the semtex over the cupcakes for a surprise he won't forget. Cherries are optional" <Sexy cherry filled pout mime to imaginary camera>

    Still Goon 2 - "That's it! I just need to modify the cupcake recipe so my GPS will work in basements."

    Goon 1 - "You're so full of it…

    Goon 2 - "No seriously. It's dependant on cake decorations from China of course, particularly those little silver ball things." "It's the high heavy metal content that makes it possible for AWACs to track al-Qaeda in bunkers" ..."God knows what will be possible with Japanese baking products."

    Goon 1 - "I quite like those ball things. I feel like a pinball wizard, pushing them around with my tongue" <starts singing> "How do you think he does it?"

    Goon 2 - "What the fuck were we talking about?"

    <…Long pause..>

    Goon 1 - "The SAMBA satellite service is down!"

    Goon 2 - "But GIMP, ToR and BACKTRACK are OK? Right, fire-up the Quattro and launch db_autopwn via the ToR end-point over Haiwai. There'll be no HARRP interference as the Bilderburg group are having their Bang-a-Hulu Con there this weekend.

    Goon 1 - "2 sessions but it's waiting to finish. I think it's hung"

    Goon 2 - HD Moore, another CIA stooge! Fuck it, switch to the GIMP!"

    Goon 1 - <Dead Parrot Sketch Palin voice> But the Gimp's sleeping. He's dormant!"

    Goon 2 - <DedZed> "Well then, I guess your just going to have to wake him now aren't you?"

    <The GIMP process had been suspended after the photo manipulation of Bin Laden's "assassination" debacle.>

    Goon 1 - <Dr Frankenstein - Gene Wilder Version> "It's alive!"

    Goon 2 - "Great, now bring up those CCTV images of Dominique Strauss-Kahn"

    Goon 1 - "The one's where he's buggering the maid or the… other ones?"

    Goon 2 - <Ominously> "The other ones"

    <Uncensored images of DSK mounting a hog-tied Justin Beiber while a pig in a maid's outfit looks on appear on the plasma screen>

    Goon 2 - Right, add in Bin Laden and Obama then add it to Fox News' hacked tweet account.

    Goon 1 - Done! How's this going to help again?

    Goon 2 - The resulting surge of internet traffic will start a net one-way electron-flow causing the earth's polarity to flip.

    Goon 1 - Right, and how's that going to help.

    Goon 2 - <sigh> It won't, but we'll blame the resulting DDoS on Lulzsec.

    Goon 1 - "Riiight… and SAMBA?"

    Goon 2 - oh yeah, I nearly forgot. Use the GIMP's backdoor to tunnel a session across to the SAMBA satellite.

    Goon 1 - "and then?"

    Goon 2 - "upload GreaseMonkey and use the 'request some more print toner' script. Samba is configured to shutdown when no-one is printing."

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Black Helicopters


      Reading that was is slightly less worse than would be doing a whole night stakeout of the local FBI office with the Lone Gunmen nerdclub. From a non-airconditioned container.

    2. henchan

      You are Verity Stob?

      And I claim my prize.

  41. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart
    Paris Hilton


    Blessed are the geek, for they shall inherit the earth..... and some of the bits orbiting it.

    Paris, I’ve always admired the obit of some of her bits.

  42. Stevie


    I congratulate our space hackers on their remote, digital version of jamming a coin in the fusebox, and look forward to their excuses when the satellite explodes like my house did.

  43. FrankAlphaXII

    I know what the "hack" was

    They simply got some of the pissed off Icelandic elves to Chuck a rock at it. That or they coughed up some $$$ to the USAF to go take a whack at it with the X-37B.

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