Serious public security incident in USA on September 14 2018 04:41 AM (UTC).
The organisation in charge of the New Mexico solar observatory that was mysteriously evacuated and shuttered for more than a week attributed the closure to a threat posed by a suspect in a criminal investigation and said the facility will reopen on Monday (US time). In a statement on Sunday, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy said employees will return to work after "recent developments in the investigation" convinced officials that there was no risk to the staff. The association also for the first time provided some details about why the observatory had to be closed, saying in a statement that officials had been cooperating with an inquiry of criminal activity in the area and "became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents." The sudden evacuation of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, on September 6 had spawned online speculation, fuelled by authorities' reluctance to provide any information about why the facility was closed. The local sheriff and those tasked with guarding the observatory after the closure said that even they had been kept in the dark. FBI agents - who were on the scene during the evacuation - declined to say anything. Internet sleuths wondered whether researchers had spotted something extraterrestrial, or whether the solar telescope at the site had possibly been hacked to spy on a nearby missile testing range. Roswell, New Mexico - where the 1947 crash of a flying object sparked so much interest that the city is now home to a UFO museum - is only about a 2 1/2-hour drive from the observatory. The association's statement did not offer details about the nature of the criminal investigation, the suspect or the developments that led officials to conclude that there was no longer a risk. The association said it was working with a security service, in part because it expected more visitors in light of the mysterious closure. The site is normally open to the public. "We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some," the association said. "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." FBI spokespeople in New Mexico and Washington and a spokeswoman for the association did not return messages seeking comment Sunday night. Otero County Sheriff Benny House said Sunday evening that he had not been told why the facility was closed, and was not aware of an investigation in the area or a person who might pose a threat. "I know absolutely nothing about what they're talking about. They have not talked to us," House said. "If there's a threat, I think I should know. I'm pretty disappointed." The National Solar Observatory sits at more than 9,000 feet in the Lincoln National Forest in the southern part of New Mexico, and it is part of a larger astronomy facility on the site. The association's statement said the closure was based in part on "logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location." The adjacent Apache Point Observatory, a collection of telescopes about half a mile away, continued to operate as normal, though, even as the Sunspot facility remained closed.
It sounds like the opening scene of a conspiracy-theory movie. But this time, it's real. US federal agents have swarmed onto a mountaintop observatory from a Blackhawk helicopter, ordering staff to leave and sealing the facility off from the public. Perplexed astronomers and nearby residents have been wondering what is going on ever since. The National Solar Observatory's operators have been given no word as to why it has been seized or when it will be returned to their hands again. "We have decided to vacate the facility at this time as precautionary measure," observatory spokesperson Shari Lifson told the local Alomogordo Daily News. "The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy who manages the facility is addressing a security issue at this time." Nearby residences and facilities - including the local post office - have also been evacuated. The FBI called on local police to help with the evacuation. "There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers, but nobody would tell us anything," Otero County Sheriff Benny House said. "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." The observatory is technically at Sacramento Peak, situated above the tiny town named Sunspot. Sheriff House told media the agency has been in contact but refuses to share any details. "The FBI is refusing to tell us what's going on," said House. "We've got people up there that requested us to standby while they evacuate it. Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why." He said he only had rumours to work with at this stage, including one that there had been a threat against the facility and staff, or a hazardous substances leak. "If that's the case, why didn't they call us and let us deal with it?" he said. "I don't know why the FBI would get involved so quick and not tell us anything." It's now been more than a week since the facility was seized. No explanation has yet been forthcoming. The local newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, has contacted the FBI. It refuses to confirm or deny that it is still in, or was even in, Sunspot. The solar telescope inside the observatory is designed tortrack the Sun while photographing and collecting spectroscopic data on the rays it and its sunspots emit. "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 the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope," says a National Science Foundation description of the facility. "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 said in a statement. "It's a temporary evacuation of the facility. We will open it up as soon as possible." The observatory is not the only research facility in the mountainous region. The Apache Point Observatory is about 1km from the Sacramento Peak site. It remains in operation. The Washington Post spoke to Professor James McAteer at New Mexico State University, asking him what had been happening at the facility. He said AURA had "ordered the site vacated, providing no other reason than a "security" issue. He said the researchers did not spot anything in the sun to necessitate them leaving, nor were they aware of any scientific reason - such as an anomaly in the data they were collecting - for doing so." The only clue is in the statement by AURA that the FBI's move relates to a "security issue". This could imply espionage. Both are engaged in military research and development programs. The National Solar Observatory's site enjoys a wide view over the US Air Force's Holloman Air Force Base and the US Army's White Sands Missile Range.
Staff have been evacuated and the FBI has sent agents and a Blackhawk helicopter to the site, without telling anyone what's going on. An observatory in New Mexico has been unexpectedly closed due to an unnamed "security issue," prompting evacuations and a visit from the FBI. The Sunspot Observatory is now currently closed to both staff and the public, with no word on why or when it will be open again. "We have decided to vacate the facility at this time as precautionary measure," said spokesperson Shari Lifson to the Alomogordo Daily News. "The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy who manages the facility is addressing a security issue at this time." Lifson said that the facility was first evacuated on September 6 and has remained closed since then. According to Lifson, the observatory has no date for reopening yet. As part of the investigation into the security issue, the observatory has contacted the FBI, which has been reported on the scene with multiple agents and a Blackhawk helicopter. According to local sheriff Benny House, the agency has been working with local law enforcement but refuses to share any details. "The FBI is refusing to tell us what's going on," said House. "We've got people up there that requested us to standby while they evacuate it. Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why." The sheriff speculated that the evacuation could be due to some kind of threat made against the facility or its staff, but expressed confusion as to why local police would be left out of the loop. "If that's the case, why didn't they call us and let us deal with it?" he said. "I don't know why the FBI would get involved so quick and not tell us anything." Another possibility could be some sort of hazardous chemical leak or other natural danger, but again there's no reason for the FBI to keep everyone in the dark. Whatever the reason, the scientists are forced to postpone their research while the FBI's investigation continues.
A mysterious solar observatory evacuation in remote New Mexico is sparking an array of conspiracy theories ranging from alien sightings to foreign spies. The Sunspot Solar Observatory was unexpectedly closed down and evacuated without publicly stated reason last Thursday -- and a week later, nobody seems to know why. While local law enforcement was requested at the scene in the town of Sunspot, they said they were left in the dark. Benny House of the Otero County Sheriff's Office told ABC News that employees from the observatory called his team in around 10 a.m. on Thursday, September 6. He said the team stood by for a few hours while employees evacuated, but the security issue remained a secret. "They were tight-lipped about what was going on, no one would tell us what the threat was," House said, and confirmed the FBI had been there. A post office nearby was also evacuated. An official from the United States Postal Service told ABC affiliate KVIA in El Paso, Texas, that he did not know who ordered the postal workers to leave. The observatory is run by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, which released a statement about the "security" incident. "AURA is addressing a security issue at the National Solar Observatory facility at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico and has decided to temporarily vacate the facility as a precautionary measure," Shari Lifson, AURA Corporate Communications Coordinator, said in a statement to ABC News. Lifson said AURA is working with authorities on the issue, but did not offer further information. Since last week's evacuation, the Sunspot Observatory website has also posted a notice: "On Thursday September 6th, AURA made the decision to temporarily close Sunspot. The Sunspot Solar Observatory continues to work closely with AURA in order to allow for us to reopen as soon as possible. With the excitement this closure has generated, we hope you will come and visit us when we do reopen, and see for yourself the services we provide for science and public outreach in heliophysics." The lack of explanation left plenty of room for the internet to speculate and conspiracies to emerge. The Albuquerque FBI has not yet responded to ABC News' request for comment. Whether it be aliens, government secrets, foreign spies or none of the above, what is certain: The observatory remains shut down, with no word about when it will reopen.