Hackers take down one of the world’s largest telescopes

4 Nov 2022

ALMA telescope dishes. Image: P. Horálek/ESO (CC BY 2.0)

The ALMA observatory in Chile has been forced to get some shut-eye after hackers targeted its computer systems.

One of the world’s largest and most advanced telescopes has had to suspend operations following a cyberattack.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), based in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, said that a cyberattack targeting its computer systems last weekend forced it to suspend operations and shut down its public website.

Email services at the observatory, which consists of a group of 66 radio telescopes to study star births and planet formations, are also “limited”.

“The threat has been contained, and our specialists are working hard to restore affected systems. The attack did not compromise the ALMA antennas or any scientific data,” the observatory tweeted this week.

The incident may be a significant inconvenience for space researchers across the world who rely on the telescope and ALMA experts.

ALMA’s location in the Chajnantor Plateau of northern Chile provides a big advantage because low frequency waves are better received at high altitudes and in dry climates, which is necessary for accurate observations.

The observatory is partnered with multiple international research organisations, including the European Southern Observatory that Ireland joined four years ago. It is also part of the global Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) network that was responsible for the first-ever image of a black hole in 2019.

Last year, ALMA detected in “exquisite resolution” what it believed was a moon-forming disc around a planet outside of our solar system for the first time.

Through the EHT collaboration, ALMA also helped reveal the first-ever image of the supermassive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way earlier this year.

“Given the nature of the episode, it is not yet possible to estimate a date for a return to regular activities,” ALMA wrote in the Twitter thread.

“We are thankful for the support across the ALMA partnership and apologise for any inconveniences resulting from the recovery efforts.”

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ALMA radio telescopes. Image: P. Horálek/ESO (CC BY 2.0)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic