Hackers Disable Two of the World's Most Advanced Telescopes

In a development that has left the astronomical community and security agencies on high alert, some of the world's leading observatories have faced cyberattacks, resulting in alarming temporary shutdowns

by Faruk Imamovic
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Hackers Disable Two of the World's Most Advanced Telescopes
© Getty Images News/John Moore

In a development that has left the astronomical community and security agencies on high alert, some of the world's leading observatories have faced cyberattacks, resulting in alarming temporary shutdowns. These attacks, deemed serious given their potential implications, underscore the increasing vulnerabilities of key infrastructures in our increasingly connected world.

On August 1st, NOIRLab (National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory), a premier institution in the realm of optical and infrared astronomy, reported a breach. This event halted the operations of the renowned Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii and its southern counterpart, the Gemini South Telescope in Chile.

Additionally, a series of smaller telescopes dotting the picturesque Chilean mountain Cerro Tololo also faced disruptions. The swift response from the observatory's diligent staff, in collaboration with cybersecurity specialists, ensured the telescopes' restoration after several days of intense effort.

Yet, in a landscape where knowledge is power, the nature of the cyberattack and its origins remain cloaked in mystery. NOIRLab, navigating these murky waters, has remained judicious, sharing information sparingly while the investigation continues.

A Growing Threat in Space and Cybersecurity

The incidents at NOIRLab are not isolated. Alarmingly, these attacks transpired shortly after an advisory from the National Counterintelligence and Security Operations Center (NCSC).

The body had recently warned US-based space companies and research facilities of the mounting threats posed by cyber espionage and direct attacks. In a statement dripping with gravity, the NCSC highlighted that foreign spies and hackers are increasingly recognizing the invaluable contribution of the commercial space industry to both the U.S.

economy and its national security. The statement warned, “They see US space-related innovation and assets as potential threats as well as valuable opportunities to acquire vital technologies and expertise”. It's crucial to note that these are not isolated events in a benign environment.

Only last October, cybercriminals disrupted the operations of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile. And if that doesn't sound the alarms loud enough, the U.S. space agency NASA hasn't been spared either.

They too fell victim to the infamous SolarWinds attack, an incident that has since been branded a "major wake-up call" in the realm of cybersecurity.

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