In a shocking turn of events, a cyberattack has brought major telescopes funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to a halt. Since early August, 10 telescopes in Hawaii and Chile have been shut down, causing astronomers to look for alternatives and valuable observing windows to disappear. Cybersecurity experts are perplexed as to why hackers are attacking these particular facilities.
The first cyber incident was discovered at NOIRLab, the NSF-run coordinating center for ground-based astronomy. The Gemini North telescope, located in Hilo, Hawaii, was the first to be affected. A quick response by NOIRLab’s cybersecurity experts prevented physical damage to the observatory, but operations were immediately halted. The outage also extended to the Gemini International Observatory, which operates the Gemini South telescope in Chile, Science writes
Gemini telescopes with impressive 8.1-meter mirrors have played a crucial role in various astronomical discoveries, including the birth of supernovae and the detection of the closest black hole to Earth. Now that remote control is no longer possible, research teams are considering sending graduate students to Chile to replace the staff who directly operated the instruments on site.
Gautam Narayan, an astronomer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, expresses the determination of the astronomical community to continue the work despite the difficult circumstances. “We are all in this together,” he says. The loss of observing time is a major blow to researchers who rely on these telescopes for their research.
NOIRLab took extra precautions by disconnecting its computer network from the Medium Scale Observatory (MSO) network in Chile, making remote observations at the 4-meter Víctor M. Blanco telescope and the SOAR telescope impossible. Eight other telescopes in Chile also ceased operations.
The exact details of the cyberattack remain under a veil of secrecy, and NOIRLab is providing limited information to both the public and its staff. The center has not confirmed whether it was a ransomware attack, where hackers demand money in exchange for control of a facility or information. However, NOIRLab’s information technology staff is working tirelessly to restore the telescopes and get them back online.
This incident underscores the vulnerability of scientific facilities to cyber threats and raises questions about the motives behind such attacks. Cybersecurity experts wonder why hackers would want to attack telescopes that help us understand the universe. While investigations continue, scientists and researchers have to accept the loss of valuable observing time and look for alternative solutions to continue their work.