By Scott Hamilton

We still do not know the motive behind a cyberattack that occurred on August 1, 2023. The National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) reported the incident to the general public on its website on August 24. NOIRLab reported that it was forced to temporarily halt operations at its Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii and the Gemini South Telescope in Chile. They also announced impacts to some of their smaller telescopes in Cerro Tololo by the incident.

NOIRLab is not releasing details of the incident as it is still under investigation and they are working a difficult balance between their commitment to transparency and the dedication to the security of their infrastructure. The attacks on the lab came just days before the United States Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) issued a bulletin advising American space and research organizations about a threat of cyberattacks.

This is not the first time that astronomical observatories have been the target of cyberattacks. It’s not a surprising target considering the importance of the commercial space industry to the global economy and the tight links to national security. The heavy dependence on space based resources for national communication means that knowing where these assets are becomes an important factor for foreign spies and hackers.

It is believed that one of the main reasons hackers are interested in the high precision telescope technologies is to assist in the discovery of secret satellites and space based assets. What better way to find objects in the sky than through the use of automated telescope technologies. The first known attacks on observatories occurred in October 2022 when hackers disrupted operations at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter array (ALMA) in Chile.

As of the latest reports from Amanda Kocz, Communications Manager NOIRLab, on August 24, “Our staff are working with cybersecurity experts to get all the impacted telescopes and our website back online as soon as possible and are encouraged by the progress made thus far. 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.”

The incident is also delaying the launch of the call for proposals originally due on August 31, 2023; because of the current impact to the infrastructure at NOIRLab, parties which need to gain access to Gemini and its data sets for scientific research in the spring semester will have to wait a while longer to submit their requests.

I must admit that I never considered the importance of space observation prior to reading about this incident and realized that if large, nationally funded laboratories cannot keep their information secure, that we may have a lot to worry about with future digital currencies. For more information on the incident you can visit https://noirlab.edu/public/announcements/ann23022/.

Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

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