Sunspot Solar Observatory Reopens Following Investigation into 'Criminal Activity'

 Sunspot Solar Observatory.  (Image credit: National Solar Observatory/NSF)

Sunspot Solar Observatory. (Image credit: National Solar Observatory/NSF)

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) released a statement yesterday announcing that the Sunspot Solar Observatory will be reopening on September 17th, following an investigation into ‘criminal activity’ which occurred at the facility.

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 statement is purposely vague, but does mention that there was a suspect in the investigation that AURA felt “potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents,” and that "the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat" is what prompted them to vacate the facility.

However, after further consideration, AURA has “determined there is no risk to staff.”

The ongoing investigation is being conducted by the FBI, according to local law enforcement, although no mention of that agency exists in AURA’s statement.

Speculation has run rampant since the observatory’s closure, with conspiracy theories ranging from a UFO or alien contact cover-up to an imminent, massively destructive coronal event being kept from the public.

The secrecy and concern prompted by whatever ‘criminal activity’ forced the observatory’s evacuation—along with the closing of the local post office—have even more observers wondering if perhaps the ‘security issue’ present involved espionage.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory is just under 200 miles south of Kirtland Air Force Base, and 20 miles east of Holloman Air Force Base, two of the U.S.’s most strategic military testing sites.

Holloman Air Force Base supports the nearby White Sands Missile Range, the Department of Defense's (DoD) largest, fully-instrumented, open air range.

Meanwhile, Kirtland Air Force Base was recently in the news for their part in reverse-engineering microwave weapons that the U.S. government believes Russia may have used against 26 U.S. embassy personnel in Cuba and China since 2016. The base has advanced laboratories used in their directed energy research program to test high-power electromagnetic weapons, including microwaves.

Counterintelligence operations on domestic soil fall under the purview of the FBI, so if a foreign power were conducting espionage through the observatory, then the FBI would be the agency sent to investigate.

Frank Fisher, a public affairs officer at FBI’s Albuquerque Division, has so far referred all inquiries to AURA.

Tobias WaylandComment