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Hackers Force Shutdown of Two Key Astronomical Observatories | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker

The International Gemini Observatory, a key player in global astronomical research, has temporarily halted astronomical operations following a cyberattack. The culprits and their motives remain unknown.

The computer hack, which took place on the morning of August 1, led to the suspension of the Gemini North and South Telescopes, as detailed in an August 24 statement from the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab). While the North telescope is situated in Hawaii, its southern counterpart, along with a few smaller telescopes, is located in Cerro Tololo, Chile. Observatories stationed on Arizona’s Kitt Peak, however, remain unaffected by the intrusion, according to NOIRLab.

As a precaution, the Gemini.edu website has been taken offline. NOIRLab remains optimistic about its reactivation, saying: “We are encouraged by the progress made thus far.” Specific details concerning the cyberattack have yet to be released, with NOIRLab citing security concerns. NOIRLab says the deactivation of the Gemini.edu site was purely precautionary, even though the main NOIRLab website remains active.

“Like the entire astronomy community, we are disappointed that some of our telescopes are not currently observing. Fortunately, we have been able to keep some telescopes online and collect data with in-person workarounds,” NOIRLab stated in its release. “We are grateful for the support of the astronomy community during this difficult time and we thank everyone for their patience as our teams continue to work towards restoring normal operations.”

Gemini North on Maunakea in Hawai‘i.
Photo: NOIRLab

Backed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NOIRLab plays a pivotal role in optical and infrared ground-based astronomical observations. While the Gemini Observatory’s telescopes aren’t the largest based on mirror size, they stand out due to their versatility, innovative instruments, and geographically strategic placement in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. This gives researchers access to an expansive range of astronomical objects and phenomena.

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For the time being, Gemini North has been securely positioned in its zenith-pointing orientation. NOIRLab credits the prompt actions of its security team for preventing any damage to the observatory. As to who is responsible for the hacks, or their motivations, that remains either unknown or undisclosed. NOIRLab has been tight-lipped about the incident, claiming that it is “limited” in what it can share about its “cybersecurity controls and investigatory findings.”

The nature of the hacks is not known, but as Space.com points out, the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) had previously alerted the public about such threats—and even the potential for espionage—in the space sector, emphasizing the critical importance of space assets to national security and economic strength.

Astronomical observatories have faced cyberattacks before, as Space.com also points out. Last year, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile was targeted. NASA has also been subject to similar attacks, prompting its leadership to emphasize the urgent need for enhanced cybersecurity.


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