Ten days ago, on September 6th, the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico (who’s writing this script…is that seriously the best location name they could come up with?) was suddenly evacuated and shut down by the FBI. Since then, no further information about the reason for the closure has been forthcoming – and so the mystery and speculation has only grown over the last week and a half, along with the birth of a number of conspiracy theories.
Even local law enforcement have not been given a reason for the closure. “The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on,” county Sheriff Benny House said, adding that a Blackhawk helicopter was also seen in the area. “Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why. The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.”
Adding to the mystery is that five nearby households’ residents have also been forced to evacuate – again without any explanation – and the town’s post office has also been shut down. A spokesperson for the United States Postal Service said that they were advised by the FBI that they would be evacuated, but were not given an explanation. “We were told on September 6th that we would be evacuated along with the surrounding area, we were not told why,” Rod Sturgeon said, “We were told just to be out of the area.”
When CNN contacted the FBI regarding the closure, their request for information was passed on to the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which manages the observatory. They provided no further explanation, apart from a blanket statement previously released to the press:
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 until further notice. All other NSO facilities are open and operating normally. AURA, which manages Sacramento Peak with funding from the National Science Foundation, is working with the proper authorities on this issue.
In the absence of any further information, there’s been plenty of speculation as to the reason.
1) I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…
The National Solar Observatory observatory is located just 85 miles southwest of Roswell. Needless to say, plenty of people have jumped on the idea that the observatory’s scientists spotted an alien craft.
Unfortunately, one of the few bits of information that has been officially released is a denial about this: “I can tell you it definitely wasn’t aliens,” a spokeswoman for the National Solar Observatory told The Washington Post.
2) The impending disaster scenario
In the movie Deep Impact, scientists with knowledge about an impending apocalyptic impact event were silenced. Could the scientists observing the Sun have seen a solar ‘event’ that has the capability of destroying human civilization?
Once again, that’s another theory that has been denied by those involved. “There is nothing we observed with the telescope that made us close anything, nothing the telescope saw,” professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University and Sunspot Solar Observatory Director R.T. James McAteer told Salon. “We did not see aliens, we did not see exoplanets, we did not see strange solar storms.”
3) Spies like us
The observatory overlooks the Tularosa Basin – an expanse of desert that includes military locations including Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range. As such, some have speculated that perhaps it was being used as a spy base. But there has been no word on whether this is the case.
Those theories aside, however, the most likely scenario would perhaps be that somebody has mailed in a threat to the observatory. This is the information that one of the evacuated local residents was given when told to get out: “We were told we had a credible threat through the FBI and to leave,” said evacuee Sean Williams. This would also possibly explain why the local post office was evacuated – if a threat was sent through there as mail, it would be somewhere the FBI would want to do some forensic work (especially if the threat included any sort of toxic substance, like anthrax).
But that too is just another theory…until we get more information from credible sources (or some good investigative journalism), we’ll have to just wait this one out. Or you could be like this guy, and just drive up and check it out?
(Thanks to Norman, Jacob, Rabbitdawg and Jim)
Update 16th September 2018:
Officials have now released a statement detailing the reasons for the closure of the National Solar Observatory, saying that it was due to “an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak”, during which “we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents”.
According to the statement, the lack of details offered to the public about the closure was to avoid spooking the suspect: “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.”
You can read the full statement at the AURA website.
Update 20th September 2018:
Turns out the criminal investigation was related to…child porn. After authorities were alerted to child porn found on a computer at the facility, veiled death threats were made and so the managers of the facility decided to get their people out until the situation was brought under control.