The scene was set: a research base on the Red Planet was struck by a cyberattack and eight teams on Earth had just a matter of hours to save it. Far from being a farfetched scenario, cyberattacks are unfortunately a daily problem for all sectors, including space exploration, and can have devastating consequences.

The ‘Pwn The Rover’ hacking contest was held on 17 October at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, in collaboration with Fraunhofer SIT and ATHENE-Center. Its goal was to bring together, educate and inspire younger generations in the realm of cybersecurity.

The hackathon was challenging, really pushing teams in a mix of time-limited and tricky but plausible scenarios;

Managing their ‘ExoMy’ rover and defending its systems from other teams’ attacks,

Attacking competing rovers in order to exploit them,

Driving their rover through a mock-up of an abandoned Mars base

Unlocking and solving Capture The Flag (CTF) challenges – where strings of code, called ‘flags’, are secretly hidden in purposefully-vulnerable programs or websites.

Congratulations to the winning team, “SPAAAAAACE”, from Warsaw University of Technology and University of Potsdam, with an impressive 2000 points! And special mentions also to the runners-up, who came in close behind: pwnthem0le, from Politecnico di Torino, with 1950 points and ENOFLAG, from Technische Universität Berlin and Universität Paderborn, scoring 1800.

“Each of the activities were intertwined in some way, so teams couldn’t complete one without giving some attention to the other parts of the contest,” explains Dominic Marszk, Engineer at ESA who co-organised the contest.

“This required teams to excel and organise themselves across a much wider than usual area of expertise. The winning teams managed to evolve and apply different tactics throughout the event which resulted in a very fierce competition.”

With thanks to all the very impressive teams who participated and everyone who applied for Pwn The Rover 2023: with activities like this and the enthusiasm of all involved, our future in space is looking secure.

Stay tuned to @esaoperations on X and LinkedIn for information on the next Hackathon.