On September 6, the Sunspot Solar Observatory in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico was evacuated, as were nearby homes and a post office due to an unspecified security threat. Now, reports Matt Zapotosky at The Washington Post the facility has announced it will reopen tomorrow, but the reason for its sudden closure is still not clear although authorities have finally released some details.
In a statement released yesterday, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the site, said the closure was related to an investigation of criminal activity that occurred at the location, and that the evacuation was due to earthly threats, not asteroids or solar flares. “During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents,” the statement says. “For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location.”
But exactly what criminal activity was going on or who was threatening the area surrounding the observatory is unknown, and may stay that way for a while.
“We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some,” the statement says. “However, our desire to provide additional information had to be balanced against the risk that, if spread at the time, the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation. That was a risk we could not take.”
The remote research center in Sacramento Peak is part of the National Solar Observatory, an institution which runs several solar telescopes, including the New Mexico site, one at Big Bear Observatory in California and a recently retired site at Kitt Peak in Arizona. It is also currently constructing the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Maui, which will be the largest solar telescope in the world when it is completed.
After the New Mexico site, which has nine employees, was evacuated, observers saw the FBI visit the facility. There were also reports of Blackhawk helicopters in the area, though that is not uncommon since the mountains are near two large military bases.
According to Duane Barbati at the Alamogordo Daily News, the facility would only say that it was vacated as precautionary measure due to a “security issue.” Police tape was strung across the entrance and guards were posted to keep people out of the area. Even local law enforcement was kept in the dark.
“The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on,” Otero County Sheriff Benny House told Barbati. “We’ve got people up there [at Sunspot] that requested us to standby while they evacuate it. Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why. The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.”
The lack of transparency from authorities and the fact that the evacuation happened at a facility that stares into space all day led to an explosion of conspiracy theories with echoes of Roswell, which lies just 130 miles to northeast of the vacated location. Some claimed they’d seen a civilization-ending solar flare directed toward Earth, or a life-ending asteroid or comet. Still others claimed that the site had been hacked by someone who was using it to listen in on transmissions from nearby Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile range.
An AURA spokeswoman explicitly told Robert Moore and Zapotosky of The Washington Post last week: “I can tell you it definitely wasn’t aliens.”
James McAteer, director of the Sunspot Solar Observatory, also ruled out the alien hypothesis in an interview with Gizmodo’s Jennings Brown late last week and said all data from the observatory will be available to the public. During the closure, the nearby Apache Point Observatory continued normal operation, providing more evidence that an alien mothership was not taking aim at southern New Mexico.