Mysteriously Evacuated Sunspot Observatory Set To Reopen According To Official Statement

The press release offers a few new but vague details about the circumstances surrounding the evacuation.

Sunspot Solar Observatory

The mystery as to what exactly is going on at Sunspot Solar Observatory that sits high above White Sands Missile Range has resulted in a media frenzy and a maelstrom of theories, some of which are beyond bizarre. The facility and the small town that supports it were completely evacuated as the FBI descended onto the complex without explanation ten days ago. Not even the local sheriff was informed on what was going on and the place was still officially declared off-limits long after investigators had left. You can read our completely in-depth coverage and analysis on the very peculiar series of events here and here. Now the organization that runs the observatory has put out a statement declaring that it would reopen this week and offering a few new but vague details about the circumstances surrounding the evacuation. 

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) released the following statement on their website:

"Sunspot Solar Observatory is transitioning back to regular operations as of September 17th

On September 6th, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) made the decision to temporarily vacate the Sunspot Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico as a precautionary measure while addressing a security issue. The facility closed down in an orderly fashion and is now re-opening. The residents that vacated their homes will be returning to the site, and all employees will return to work this week.

AURA has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak. During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents. For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location.

The decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat. AURA determined that moving the small number of on-site staff and residents off the mountain was the most prudent and effective action to ensure their safety.

In light of recent developments in the investigation, we have determined there is no risk to staff, and Sunspot Solar Observatory is transitioning back to regular operations as of September 17th. Given the significant amount of publicity the temporary closure has generated, and the consequent expectation of an unusual number of visitors to the site, we are temporarily engaging a security service while the facility returns to a normal working environment.

We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some. 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 nature of how this was done and how the residents were removed from the site without any warning and without any explanation could potentially mean a multitude of things, but it still seems like suspicion of espionage is the likely reason. Also, the most detailed statement we have on what actually went on up there during the investigation is from a highly credible source—the sheriff—and points to this possibility more so than a workplace dispute or something of that nature. 

Otero County Sheriff Benny House stated to local media:

“The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on,” House said. “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.... But for the FBI to get involved that quick and be so secretive about it, there was a lot of stuff going on up there... There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers but nobody would tell us anything.”

As we discussed in our large analysis piece on the event, the facility is very low security—as in not really any at all—yet sits in a highly strategic location overlooking one of America's preeminent weapons test complexes, White Sands Missile Range, and Holloman AFB. Sunspot Solar Observatory has multiple places where sensors, such as antenna aerials, could potentially be planted without drawing outright attention. These could be used to record and intercept electronic emissions related to military activities in, above, and around the valley below. 

The network the telescope works on could have also been compromised. We were told it was upgraded some time ago for remote operations, but we are still trying to confirm this fact and get an understanding of just the system works. We also don't know if foreign nationals were working at the site at the time of the incident. 

We have reached out to the observatory's director in an attempt to get some basic answers to questions about the site itself, but we have yet to get a response. 

Rest assured we will keep updating you as to how this strange story unfolds and with any interesting information we find about the site and its surroundings. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com