The truth is out there – but nobody will go on the record about it.
Rumors are swirling and authorities are tight-lipped following the evacuation of an observatory in southwest New Mexico last week.
The National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, near Alamogordo, was evacuated last Thursday, along with a nearby post office, and has remained closed since without explanation.
According to the facility’s website, the observatory and surrounding area are closed until further notice “due to unforeseen circumstances.”
“The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy is addressing a security issue … and has decided to temporarily vacate the facility as a precautionary measure,” AURA spokeswoman Shari Lifson said in a statement. “We have no further comment at this time.”
In the Lincoln National Forest, the observatory has been involved in solar research since 1947. Since the closure, the news has spread nationwide with headlines like “I’m Definitely Not Saying It’s Aliens,” and lighting up internet message boards with fervor and speculation.
Lifson said AURA is working with the proper authorities, but would not name them.
The closure even caught Otero County Sheriff Benny House by surprise.
“Some folks that work at the laboratory called us, asked us if we could send a deputy to stand by while they were evacuating,” House said during a phone interview Wednesday. “All the employees were packing up and leaving.”
House said they didn’t get any more answers at the observatory, but staff members told deputies the FBI had been there.
“Nobody would give us any information on what was going on,” House said, before the phone call cut out and repeated attempts to reach him again were unsuccessful.
FBI spokesman Frank Fisher would not confirm or deny the agency’s involvement but referred all questions to AURA.
U.S. Postal Service spokesman Rod Spurgeon called the situation “strange” after authorities walked into the nearby post office without warning and told the clerk to evacuate.
“I wasn’t present … so I’m not sure which law enforcement agency told us to evacuate,” Spurgeon said.
He said no timeline was given on when the office would be able to reopen.
Spurgeon said he is waiting on a call, but doesn’t know from whom as he has not heard from any authorities or agency.
“It’s shrouded in mystery,” he said.
An employee at the nearby Apache Point Observatory said they are also in the dark.
“We know about as little as anybody,” the employee said.
The employee said people in the area have seen unknown authorities hovering in helicopters and driving up in vehicles.
“Nobody would know who they are – you stop them and they won’t tell you anyway,” he said.
The employee said there is not enough information to “worry about it,” but the mystery continues to deepen among locals.
“That’s what happens when you do something and don’t tell anybody why,” he said.
Quelle: Albuquerque Journal
Unexplained 'Security Issue' Keeps National Solar Observatory Facility Shuttered
Credit: National Solar Observatory/NSF
It's been more than a week, and a National Solar Observatory (NSO) facility in New Mexico is still closed for an undisclosed "security issue."
The NSO's Sunspot Solar Observatory, on Sacramento Peak in the southern part of the state, was evacuated last Thursday (Sept. 6), as was a nearby post office, according to the Albuquerque Journal. FBI agents have reportedly been investigating the site, and they're apparently keeping local law-enforcement personnel in the dark.
The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which manages the Sunspot observatory with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, hasn't said much, either. The organization released a statement saying that AURA "is addressing a security issue" at Sunspot "and has decided to temporarily vacate the facility as a precautionary measure until further notice." AURA "is working with the proper authorities on this issue," the statement adds, without specifying who those authorities are.
And we may not get answers anytime soon. At 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) today (Sept. 14), AURA Corporate Communications Coordinator Shari Lifson sent out an email update, which stated that AURA "has decided that the observatory will remain closed until further notice due to an ongoing security concern."
Unsurprisingly, the dearth of information has led to a lot of speculation about what's going on. The rumors range from the downright silly (the feds shut Sunspot down to keep news about a deadly solar superflare from getting into our panicky heads) to the intriguingly believable (this may be an espionage investigation).
Observatory team members have shot down one of the more farfetched theories, however. The "telescope did not see aliens," Sunspot Solar Observatory director James McAteer, who's also an associate professor of astronomy, solar physics and space weather at New Mexico State University, told Albuquerque news station KOB4.
"All data will be made public in its unaltered form," McAteer added. "Nothing is hidden or kept secret."
The FBI hadn't returned a phone call as of press time. The agency has consistently declined to comment on the Sunspot situation over the past week, according to other news organizations.
Aufregung um mysteriöse Evakuierung eines Sonnenobservatoriums
Das Gelände um das Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico wurde ohne Angabe von Gründen vom FBI evakuiert. Verschwörungstheoretiker rotieren
Nicht einmal der zuständige Sheriff ist über die Vorgänge informiert: "Das FBI weigert sich, uns Auskunft zu geben", sagte Benny House zu "Alamogordo News". Er berichtete von FBI-Hubschraubern, die über dem Gelände kreisten.
Auch James McAteer, der Direktor des Sunspot Solar Observatory, weiß offenbar nicht, warum seine Forschungseinrichtung eigentlich geschlossen wurde: Er sei angewiesen worden, die Mitarbeiter zur Evakuierung aufzurufen, Gründe seien jedoch nicht genannt worden, sagte er zu einem Fernsehsender. Probleme mit Teleskopen schloss er jedenfalls aus.
Schweigen heizt Gerüchte an
Beim FBI hält man sich bedeckt und verweist auf die Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), der das Observatorium angehört. Eine Sprecherin des Konsortiums ließ wiederum wissen, eine "Sicherheitsangelegenheit" habe zum Entschluss zu einer vorübergehenden Evakuierung geführt. Details könnten aber nicht verlautbart werden.
Die Geheimnistuerei ruft natürlich Verschwörungstheoretiker auf den Plan: Kaum erschienen die ersten Berichte in lokalen Medien, wurden schon wilde Gerüchte über Aliensichtungen und Regierungsoperationen gestreut und Zusammenhänge mit dem nur 200 Kilometer entfernten Ort Roswell konstruiert, der seit Jahrzehnten im Fokus von Ufologen und Verschwörungstheoretikern steht (egal wie oft der angebliche "Ufo-Absturz" von 1947 widerlegt wird). Dass die Intransparenz der Behörden diversen bizarren Gerüchten Aufwind verleiht, ist eigentlich wenig überraschend – es bleibt zu hoffen, dass bald die Auflösung folgt und Verschwörungstheorien den Nährboden entzieht.
Eine plausible Erklärung, die ganz ohne Aliens auskommt, macht die völlige Offenlegung aber unwahrscheinlich: Die Evakuierung könnte mit der nahe gelegenen Holloman Air Force Base und der White Sands Missile Range zusammenhängen. Auf letzterer, einem Übungs- und Testgelände der US-Army, wurde nicht nur im Zuge des Manhattan-Projekts der erste Nukleartest der Geschichte durchgeführt. Heute werden dort neue Raketen- und Drohnentechnologien getestet. Es wäre also denkbar, dass mit der Schließung und Evakuierung verhindert werden soll, dass Mitarbeiter des Observatoriums zu Zeugen militärischer Übungsflüge werden.
Wann die Arbeit am Sunspot Solar Observatory wieder weitergehen kann, ist noch unklar. Auf der Homepage der Einrichtung bemüht man sich jedenfalls, den Medienrummel zu Werbezwecken zu nutzen: Nach der ganzen Aufregung freue man sich über Besucher, die sich für die Arbeit der Sonnenforscher interessieren und sich selbst überzeugen wollen, was dort eigentlich gemacht wird. Und ein Besucherzentrum gibt es auch. (dare, 14.9.2018)
Remote solar observatory remains closed after mysterious evacuation
Nobody is quite sure what’s going on at the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico, which was quickly and mysteriously evacuated on 6 September amid reports of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe, and has remained closed. The manager of the mountaintop site, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), today released a statement saying the observatory “will remain closed until further notice due to an ongoing security concern.”
In the wake of the shutdown, Otero County Sheriff Benny House told the Alamogordo Daily News: “The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.” Facility employees are similarly in the dark. “We have absolutely no idea what is going on,” says Alisdair Davey, a data center scientist at the National Solar Observatory (NSO). “As in truly nothing, which in itself is just weird.” Messages left with the FBI field office in Albuquerque were not returned.
AURA manages the site for NSO, a National Science Foundation-funded group. New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces leads the consortium, including NSO and other universities, that operates the observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope, which conducts routine observations of the sun used by scientists around the world.
All buildings on the site have been shut down and the staff of approximately 12 have been sent home, says James McAteer, Sunspot director and an NMSU astronomer in Las Cruces. He says shutdown events are not unusual, because remote mountaintop facilities can be closed due to sewage leaks, downed power lines, or snowstorms. But the Apache Point Observatory, located slightly lower down on the same mountain, remains open.
The U.S. Postal Service (USPS), which has a small office on the same site as Sunspot that mostly handles mail deliveries for the observatory, has also been shut down, though spokespeople for the office say the post office being closed is incidental. “Whatever’s occurring there has nothing to do with us,” says Rod Spurgeon, the USPS spokesperson for the New Mexico area. Spurgeon downplayed the idea that the incident could involve any sort of mailed biohazard or bioterror. “I haven’t heard of anything like that going on,” he says. Liz Davis, a public information officer at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which handles law enforcement for the USPS, confirms there is “no criminal activity, which is what Postal Inspection Service would be dealing with.”
The Sunspot observatory on Sacramento Peak overlooks Holloman Air Force Base and an observer could potentially see out to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Test range. That has raised questions about possible espionage. “New Mexico is a center of national-security-related science, and for that reason it has also been a prominent venue for foreign espionage,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Spies go where the secrets are, and there are plenty of secrets in New Mexico.”
But, Aftergood says, a solar observatory might not be the best place to conduct such activity. “I imagine most or all of its sensors are directed up.” He wonders if someone at the Sunspot observatory somehow inadvertently spotted a classified satellite or transmission, triggering the shutdown.
That might also explain why the facility has remained closed for so long, Aftergood says; it could take time to interview all relevant personnel, get them to sign nondisclosure agreements, and do background investigations to make sure they are not foreign agents.
While the actual nature of the security issue remains unresolved, the tight-lipped nature of the authorities is only driving more interest. “The mystery is more intriguing than what the ultimate explanation is likely to be,” Aftergood says.
New Mexico observatory closed for security reasons to reopen
An observatory in the mountains of southern New Mexico that had been closed since early September because of an undisclosed security concern is scheduled to reopen on Monday, officials managing the facility said.
The Sunspot Solar Observatory no longer faces a security threat to staff, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy said in a statement Sunday. The facility closed on Sept. 6.
The association has hired a temporary security team to patrol the observatory when it reopens. "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," the association said.
Authorities have not revealed the nature of the security threat the observatory faced. The FBI has referred all questions to the association.
"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 association said.
Located atop Sacramento Peak, the observatory was established in 1947.
It overlooks the Tularosa Basin — an expanse of desert that includes the city of Alamogordo, Holloman Air Force Base, White Sands Missile Range, White Sands National Monument and the site of the world's first atomic bomb test.
The telescope at Sunspot was originally built by the U.S. Air Force. After several years of operation, it was transferred to the National Solar Observatory, which is part of the National Science Foundation.
New Mexico State University in 2016 launched an initiative funded by the foundation to upgrade and update the facility through the newly formed Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium.
Officials said Sunspot's one-of-a-kind telescope produces some of the sharpest images of the sun available in the world. Data from observations done at Sunspot is sent to New Mexico State University servers and can be used by researchers around the world.
Officials explain why they closed Sunspot Solar Observatory (and it wasn’t aliens)
After days of fighting rumors about alien visitations, the managers of the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico say they’re reopening the facility — and have shed more light on the reason for its 10-day security-related closure.
The 71-year-old, 9,200-foot-elevation observatory on Sacramento Peak is America’s national center for ground-based solar physics. It’s managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, under an agreement with the National Science Foundation.
It’s also not far from Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range. That was just one reason for tongues to wag when AURA and NSF decided on Sept. 6 to evacuate the facility and surrounding homes due to a security issue.
The FBI was called in to investigate, but local law enforcement officials complained that they were being kept in the dark about what exactly was going on. “I’ve got ideas, but I don’t want to put them out there,” The Washington Post quoted Otero County Sheriff Benny House as saying. “That’s how bad press or rumors get started, and it’ll cause paranoia, or I might satisfy everybody’s mind and I might be totally off base.”
A mystery in New Mexico naturally makes some folks think of aliens, in part due to the fame (or the infamy) surrounding the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident. In that case, the initial headlines about a flying-saucer crash in the desert near Roswell sparked decades of speculation that were never totally quelled by the official explanations, which started with a weather balloon and ended with crash-test dummies and experiments to monitor nuclear tests.
Similarly, AURA’s explanation for this month’s evacuation, issued today, sticks to strictly earthly affairs:
“AURA has been cooperating with an ongoing 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.”
AURA officials said they recognized that the lack of information during the evacuation “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,” AURA said. “That was a risk we could not take.”
The observatory’s staff of about nine employees should be back at work this week. It shouldn’t take long for nearby residents to be back in their homes, for researchers to be back at the Dunn Solar Telescope, and for tourists to be back at the Sunspot Visitors Center. But a full resolution of the mystery will have to wait until criminal charges are filed, assuming that the investigation bore fruit.
And if the mystery hangs on with no criminal charges, with no further disclosures, don’t be surprised if Agents Mulder and Scully tackle the Sunspot Incident in a future “X-Files” episode.