08-06-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
In what is probably a first in space launch history, the Chinese Space Centre discovered a device that could potentially jam the signal of their Shenzhou 14 mission and is now trying to determine if the incident was an intentional act or not. What exactly happened, why was the rocket highly vulnerable in this case, and could jamming technologies become prevalent in the future?
On the 5th of June 2022, China will be launching their latest Shenzhou 14 rocket that will carry three Chinese astronauts to the Tianhe core module, the central module in the Tiangong space station currently being constructed in low-earth orbit. Now that the rocket has been moved to the launch pad ready for take-off, those monitoring the launch will undoubtedly worry about the weather whilst ensuring that all checks on the rocket have been made and none of the astronauts gets ill.
But a few weeks before launch, radio interference was detected by staff at the command centre, and an investigation was launched to find the source of the interference. It wouldn’t be long before a radio surveillance team discovered a nearby vehicle with a suspected jamming circuit inside. Details on the device are somewhat sketchy, but what has been reported is that the device has a maximum range of 32 feet, can be easily purchased online, and has the ability to interfere with satellite signals. Translation of the official report suggests that the device was a GPS jammer than can be used to hide the GPS position of an individual from authorities.
Please note that the original source does not have SSL encryption, so we have linked to a Google-translated Wayback machine archived version - https://web-archive-org.translate.goog
Operators of the space centre haven’t stated if the jammer was being used maliciously against the new rocket, but it was confirmed that it does have the ability to interfere with communication. Now that the device has been removed, it is expected that the launch will continue.
The device that was found has an operational range of 32 feet, and yet it was claimed to be able to interfere with rocket communications. While this may seem strange at first, it makes perfect sense when considering how rockets communicate and the radio power they deal with.
A rocket in orbit, even in low-earth orbit, is extremely far away from any terrestrial transceiver that must go through 80km of the atmosphere. As such, signals received on either end are generally very weak (around -50dB depending), meaning that receivers have to be very sensitive.
Therefore, the presence of a transmitter, even a supposedly weak one with a range of 32 feet, will appear to be an extremely strong signal source located within a mile or two of a receiver. Now, this transmitter won’t affect a rocket in orbit as the signal degradation would be far too severe, but a rocket on a landing pad can easily be affected, which may cause the rocket’s navigation system to fail.
As the price of electronics continues to fall while their capabilities increase, it will only be a matter of time before advanced RF circuits can be integrated into simple packages that can jam a broad range of frequencies. In fact, jammers for specific frequencies already exist, as demonstrated by the Chinese Space Centre, meaning that they may become more prevalent in society.
Although most jammers are illegal (due to their interfering nature), they are readily available from manufacturers outside of a country (such as in China). To make matters worse, jammers can often be manufactured from off-the-shelf parts and consist of a few lines of code. The distribution of jamming code is not regulated by law, and freely available circuits posted online are difficult to stop.
However, installing a jammer that interferes with other equipment is likely to be spotted by authorities, and anyone found to be using such equipment without proper licenses can see hefty fines from organisations such as the FCC and Ofcom. But that still doesn’t stop some from operating radio equipment illegally, and the easy access to electronics could make regulation more difficult in the future.
This could become particularly troublesome for future cellular networks should conspiracy theories surrounding cellular signals become predominate. Instead of activists physically targeting cell towers, they could instead create jammers that deny an area of cellular coverage.
Fortunately, jammers are a rarity, and it is likely that the individual who had the jammer in their vehicle near the Chinese Space Centre simply didn’t want to be tracked by government organisations. But if we are not careful, jamming technologies could become prevalent in society should governments and tech companies continue to violate privacy.