More than three weeks after a “cyber incident” at the US research facility NOIRLab, it is still unclear what exactly happened and why several large telescopes in Hawaii and Chile have now been taken off the grid or are out of service. A total of ten telescopes were shut down, reports the research magazine Science, and remote control was deactivated for several. Because there is no solution in sight, researchers could now be flown to the sites – to relieve the exhausted staff. This has been operating the devices on site for weeks. Meanwhile, employees were not even told what exactly happened. It was only explained to the press that work was being done “around the clock” to fix the problem.
More and more telescopes taken offline
The National Research Laboratory for Optical and Infrared Astronomy (NOIRLab) first published a “cyber incident in its own computer systems” on August 1st. A quick reaction by the cyber security team and the researchers prevented “damage to the observatory”. The affected Gemini North telescope in Hawaii was then switched off. The sister telescope Gemini South in Chile, which had been deactivated as planned, has not been put back into service. A week later, the facility announced that US telescopes on Cerro Tololo (CTIO) and Cerro Pachón (SOAR) were also taken offline. In some cases, the staff takes care of the observations.
Those responsible have not made public what exactly happened. An attack with ransomware and an associated attempt at blackmail is conceivable. It is also unclear whether the research facility was targeted at all. The attackers might not even know they were dealing with an observatory, Science quotes a cybersecurity expert from the National Science Foundation, which funds the NOIRLab, as saying. For astronomy, however, the incident should be a wake-up call, he says. Just last fall, the international radio telescope network ALMA in Chile was offline for almost two months after a cyber attack.
The affected astronomer Gautham Narayan assures Science that everything is currently being tried at the NOIRLab to enable the planned research work. So far, the staff working on site have tried to carry out the observations for researchers all over the world. In the meantime, however, the limits have been reached, according to an internal e-mail. That is why there is now discussion about sending doctoral students to Chile so that they can do this work. This also indicates that the NOIRLab does not expect the restrictions to end any time soon. International research projects, doctoral theses and scientific studies depend on the instruments.
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