Mysterious Evacuation Of Solar Observatory Overlooking White Sands Smells Like Espionage

The bizarre incident has spurred outlandish theories, but based on what we know and the location, there are more plausible explanations.

National Solar Observatory

A bizarre, unexplained situation has unfolded in and around the tiny enclave of Sunspot, New Mexico. A week after U.S. federal government officials ordered the evacuation of the National Solar Observatory facility there, as well as a nearby post office, the first site remains closed due to a “security issue” and no one can or will say what it is.

Members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and potentially other federal government agencies, arrived in Sunspot on or about Sept. 7, 2018, at which point they ordered everyone out of the National Solar Observatory site, which is technically at Sacramento Peak, situated above the tiny town. They also told the clerk in the Sunsport Post Office to evacuate.

"The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy [AURA] who manages the facility is addressing a security issue at this time," AURA spokesperson Shari Lifson, told the Alamogordo Daily News on Sept. 7, 2018. "We don’t know [when the facility will open again]."

"We are working with the proper authorities on this issue," she continued. "The local authorities do know and are aware of the situation. I don’t know when the facility was vacated but it was within the last day. It’s a temporary evacuation of the facility. We [will] open it up as soon as possible.”

National Science Foundation

The National Observatory Facility at Sacramento Peak above Sunspot, New Mexico.

This "temporary" evacuation has now lasted seven days and it's not entirely clear how much of Sunspot is still off limits, with some residents complaining about not being able to get to their homes. Lifson had no additional information when the Albuquerque Journal asked for an update on the situation on Sept. 12, 2018. The Apache Point Observatory, about half a mile away from the Sacramento Peak site, never closed and remains in operation.

Lifson might be right that local authorities know that there is a situation, but there is no indication that they know what it is specifically. No one, including AURA's spokesperson, seems to know knows for sure what law enforcement entity told people to leave the post office. Otero County Sheriff Benny House said the FBI asked him to support the initial evacuations at the observatory itself, but gave him no other information and that he and his deputies left after there was no evidence of an ongoing or imminent threat.

Google Earth

A map showing all of Sunspot, New Mexico, with the town's post office marked to the right and the Sacramento Peak observatory facility at the lower left.

"There was a Black Hawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers but nobody would tell us anything," Sheriff House explained to the Alamogordo Daily News on Sept. 7, 2018. "We went up there and everything was good. There was no threat. Nobody would identify any specific threat. We hung out for a little while then we left. No reason for us to be there. Nobody would tell us what we’re supposed to be watching out for."

It's important to note that AURA has consistently described the situation was a "security issue" rather than a "risk" or a "threat," which strongly suggests the reason for the evacuations was not tied to something such as a bomb threat. Had there been a danger of some sort chemical or biological hazard, the responding officials would have been wearing suitable protective gear

There are unconfirmed reports that some individuals were dressed as if they were responding to some sort of hazardous material spill, but it seems curious that Sherrif House would have left this detail out of his comments. That sort of incident, or even a crime such as murder, also wouldn't explain why the FBI and other federal officials would have had to descend on Sunspot, do so without apparently alerting local law enforcement or U.S. Postal Service officials in advance, and then refuse to explain the situation in any way to them. The FBI declined to even confirm or deny that it had been or was still in Sunspot to the Albuquerque Journal.

But given AURA's statements and what else we know about the situation, there is a distinct possibility that "security issue" is actually related to espionage or a similar operational security concern. The National Solar Observatory's site enjoys a wide and largely unobstructed view of both the U.S. Air Force's Holloman Air Force Base and the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range, both of which regularly host a very wide array of U.S. military research and development programs.

Google Earth

A map showing the general area around the National Solar Observatory facility at Sacramento Peak near Sunspot, New Mexico. Hollman Air Force Base is marked to the left. White Sands Missile Range is off the map, due north of Holloman.

"The Sacramento Peak Observatory serves the solar physics community as the only high-resolution solar facility with extensive spectroscopic capabilities open for community access in the United States and as a development testbed for the high-order AO [Adaptive Optics] capability needed for DKIST [Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope]," the National Science Foundation, which technically owns the site, said in a draft environmental impact statement that it published in February 2018. "The 4-meter Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) is currently under construction on Haleakalá in Maui, Hawai'i, and is planned to replace the function of DST [Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope] for NSO [National Solar Observatory]."

The National Science Foundation commissioned the environmental impact survey as part of deliberations about whether to curtail operations at the site, transfer greater responsibility for the facilities to another entity, or shutter it all together, due to funding constraints. Before the U.S. government closed the National Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak completely due to the ongoing "security issue," there were reportedly only a limited number of researchers and other personnel there anyway, as the Dunn Solar Telescope is the only remaining part of the facility that is still in operation.

The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope inside the observatory is a vacuum telescope designed to track the Sun and its movements while gathering imagery and spectroscopy data about the rays it emits and its sunspots. It is possible that the telescope could point low enough to gather useful information about objects at Holloman or White Sands in the valley below. It is also possible that the U.S. government could have had concerns about what it might be able to see in outer space, or at least who saw what and what they did with that information, but this seems quite unlikely. 

NOAO/AURA/NSF

Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope is a massive installation. It doesn't just resemble an iceberg, it's similar to one in that the majority of it is hidden from view below the surface. The facility looks right out of a science fiction movie and penetrates hundreds of feet below the ground. 

It seems more plausible that a foreign operative or an operative working on a foreign government's behalf might have been able to install an antenna/sensor apparatus onto the top of a structure that is part of the facility and within line-of-sight of the valley below without anyone noticing. This could allow them to persistently gather electronic intelligence on whatever might be happening on, around, and over White Sands and at Holloman. With the capabilities of modern electronics and batteries, it's possible that such a system wouldn't even need to be hard wired. 

For instance, check out this 360 photo of a publically accessible viewpoint and weather station adjacent to the main solar telescope tower up at Sacremento Peak. The small building is covered with antennas and electronics which have a perfectly clear line of sight to the valley below. Clandestinely placing a sensor package here that is able to collect certain emissions while blending in with the clutter seems like a relatively rudimentary task—hiding in plain sight if you will. 

This is just one area of a fairly large complex of observatories and other buildings, many of which are in disuse, but which may already be adorned with antennas and other electronics and have an unobstructed line-of-sight towards White Sands. Otero County Sheriff House's comment in which he states there were officials and workmen inspecting towers and antennas could indicate that there were looking for just such a device.

National Science Foundation

An annotated satellite image of the National Solar Observatory complex at Sacramento Peak, at the low left, and the associated enclave of Sunspot, New Mexico.

Individuals looking to spy on Holloman or White Sands could have been using the local post office to send copies of that information to their handlers or to an intermediate location, as well. A suspect could even work or live up there. As such, the FBI or other agencies could have decided to temporarily shut down its operations in order to comb it for evidence, even just as a basic precaution.

"We don't know what they [the FBI] took, what their reason for being there was," Sergeant Jon Emery of the Otero County Sheriff’s Office told KOB 4, a local NBC affiliate television station in Albuquerque, on Sept. 13, 2018. "We have no information on it." It is not clear if federal authorities have removed anything from the site, or, if they did, what it might have been.

Using the site as a possible testing location for some sort of sensor or directed energy weapon, or even commandeering the high-powered telescope for a national security use, such as spying on or blinding enemy satellites, also comes to mind. The telescope has been used for laser experiments in decades, but there isn't even circumstantial evidence that points to the U.S. government using it for a similar purpose today. Nor would evacuating a town to do so make much sense.  

The nearby Apache Point Observatory, which is more active than its northerly neighbor, does have a high-power laser system that is used for taking lunar measurements. 

A Notice To Airman (NOTAM) is currently posted warning aviators to stay away from the site, but that isn't too odd considering the facility openly uses a device that can harm pilots' and passengers' eyes. The NOTAM reads:

!FDC 8/9292 ZAB NM..AIRSPACE SUNSPOT, NM..LASER RESEARCH WI AN AREA DEFINED AS APACHE POINT OBSERVATORY, 324649N1054913W OR THE BOLES /BWS/ VOR 098 DEGREE RADIAL AT 10NM, SFC-FL600. AT A TYPICAL ANGLE OF 45 DEGREES, FM THE SFC, PROJECTING UP TO FL600 AVOID AIRBORNE HAZARD BY 5NM. THIS BEAM IS INJURIOUS TO PILOT'S/AIRCREW'S AND PASSENGER'S EYES. ALBUQUERQUE /ZAB/ ARTCC, 505-856-4500 IS THE FAA COORDINATION FACILITY. 1809140110-1809140230

The incident is very strange, to say the least. It sounds more like the opening of an '80s science fiction adventure film than something that is actually happening and it has begun to trigger all types of outlandish theories. These include that the telescope identifying a world-changing solar flare or spotted proof of alien life in our solar system. Both of these suppositions seem to have been shot down by the director of the telescope facility, who said his team would gladly release the data the telescope was collecting before feds arrived.

But something is going on out of the ordinary up there, and based on what we do know, it seems like espionage is a real possibility. 

UPDATE: We have posted a new article with video from inside the complex and new details here. And yes, the story just keeps getting stranger. 

Contact the authors: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com and tyler@thedrive.com