Two satellites--one controlled by NASA and the other by the space agency and the U.S. Geological Survey--experienced interference several times between October 2007 and October 2008, according to a draft report by the the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The report is scheduled to be available publicly next month.
Specifically, Landsat-7--an Earth observation satellite managed by both parties--experienced 12 or more minutes of interference on Oct. 20, 2007. The incident was only discovered when the same satellite had a similar disruption again on July 23, 2008, according to the draft report.
Terra EOS, another Earth observation satellite managed solely by NASA, experienced two or more minutes of interference on June 20,2008, and then nine or more minutes of interference again on Oct. 22, 2008.
Hackers gained access to the satellites through Svalbard Satellite Station, a ground control station in Spitsbergen, Norway.
While these incidents did not cause any major harm or damage, this type of intrusion could pose a major threat to a satellite with "more sensitive functions," according to the draft report.
"For example, access to a satellite's controls could allow an attacker to damage or destroy the satellite," according to the report. "The attacker could also deny or degrade as well as forge or otherwise manipulate the satellite's transmission."
If a hacker gained a "high level of access," it also could access information or imagery from the satellite's sensors, or manipulate other terrestrial or space-based networks used by the satellite, according to the report.
A spokesperson said the commission's draft report could be modified before the final report is made available.
The incidents mentioned in the report are not the first time the commission has brought to light China's hacking of U.S. government operations. A report by the commission released in November revealed an incident on April 8, 2010, when China Telecom diverted U.S. and other foreign Internet traffic through servers in China.
U.S. government activity affected in that incident included traffic going to and from U.S. .gov and .mil sites, including sites for the Senate, the four main armed services branches, the office of the Secretary of Defense, NASA, the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.