Hacker attack on Gemini North telescope in Hawaii shuts down many U.S.-run telescopes

A attack by hackers against the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii on August 1, 2023 has forced the National Science Foundation (NSF) to shut down all the telescopes it operates.

NOIRLab, the NSF-run coordinating center for ground-based astronomy, first announced the detection of an apparent cyberattack on its Gemini North telescope in Hilo, Hawaii, in a 1 August press release. Whatever happened may have placed the instrument in physical jeopardy. “Quick reactions by the NOIRLab cyber security team and observing teams prevented damage to the observatory,” the center’s release said.

In response to the incident, NOIRLab powered down all operations at the International Gemini Observatory, which runs the Hilo telescope and its twin, Gemini South, on Cerro Pachón mountain in Chile. (The latter was already offline for a planned outage.) Together, the two 8.1-meter telescopes have revealed vast swaths of celestial wonders—from the birth of supernovae to the closest known black hole to Earth.

Normally, NOIRLab’s computer systems let astronomers remotely operate a variety of other optical ground-based telescopes. But on 9 August the center announced it had also disconnected its computer network from the Mid-Scale Observatories (MSO) network on Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachon in Chile. This action additionally made remote observations impossible at the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter and SOAR telescopes. NOIRLab has stopped observations at eight other affiliated telescopes in Chile as well.

The attack has shut down ten telescopes entirely, some of which are the largest in the world, while other telescopes are operating but only allowing in-person operations.