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Cyberattack against the Gemini Observatory

The Gemini Observatory, operator of two prominent astronomical telescopes, was recently the target of a cyberattack. Gemini oversees the 8-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii and Gemini South telescope in Chile. Funded internationally, it is managed by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). This year, Gemini spotted the birth of a supernova and the black hole nearest to Earth.

On August 18, 2023, the NSF's National Optical Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) reported the cyberattack on its computer systems. It directly led to the abrupt shutdown of Gemini North operations, while Gemini South was already offline for engineering work.

According to an August 1st press release, NOIRLab decided to halt all Gemini Observatory activities, even powering down both telescopes. This aimed to give experts time to assess the cyberattack and potentially bolster security measures.

On August 9th, NOIRLab fully disabled remote access to another Chile-based network, the Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System (SMARTS). This includes the SOAR and Víctor M. Blanco telescopes. Details remain scarce, with minimal interaction between NOIRLab and employees.

Former NSF cybersecurity department head Vaughn Welch noted the hackers may not have known they attacked an observatory. Their motives and ransom demands are unclear. Nonetheless, the shutdown has disrupted numerous astronomers' work and jeopardized projects like dissertations and publications. Research often relies on small operational windows, some of which are now unfeasible.

While full impacts remain uncertain, the attack resulted in lost productivity and scrapped projects. It may force security improvements at Gemini and prompt discussions on better safeguarding scientific infrastructure against cyber threats. Astronomers worldwide depend on facilities like Gemini for research essential to humanity's understanding of the universe.

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