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New Mexico Observatory Finally Gives Explanation for Mysterious Shutdown

Illustration for article titled New Mexico Observatory Finally Gives Explanation for Mysterious Shutdownem/em
Photo: Samat Jain (Flickr)

Ever since the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, was evacuated and visited by the FBI on September 6, the organization that runs the facility has been mum on the “security threat” that led to the closure.

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The relative silence on the part of Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) has led to wild speculation and theories about what the organization could be hiding—including proof of alien life, military testing, and evidence than an asteroid is heading toward Earth.

Now AURA has finally shed some light on the mystery. Shari Lifson, a spokesperson for AURA, released a statement Sunday night:

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.

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The statement explains that AURA decided to evacuate the area because of “logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat.”

AURA has decided to re-open the facility and allow residents and staff to return to the area today.

The statement did not provide any further information on the “criminal activity,” but said, “recent developments in the investigation” led AURA to decide the staff is not at risk.

Lifson acknowledged the “lack of communications” surrounding the closure was alarming. “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,” Lifson stated.

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The observatory probably won’t be conducting scientific businesses as usual this week. Because of all the national attention from the closure, AURA is expecting a high volume of visitors. Subsequently, the organization has brought in a security service to assist with operations.

Former senior reporter at Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

I keep on forgetting that I’m a Gizmodo commenter who lives in southern New Mexico and that the other people making comments are just, you know, making up stuff because they don’t know any better. And of course it doesn’t help that Gizmodo’s reporting is ... well, let’s just look at one phrase from the first article on the matter.

Sunspot, New Mexico, 130 miles southwest of Roswell

As the crow flies it’s closer to 90 miles, but driving it is about 130 miles. So this is “technically” true if we’re measuring distance as how far one has to travel by car to get to a spot, which is one way to measure distance...

But the only reason to mention Roswell is to play the “it’s aliens!!!” lazy story. Roswell (~48,000 people) isn’t the most populated nearby city: that’s Las Cruces, which has twice as many people and is literally closer to Sunspot than Roswell is. Roswell isn’t the nearest city to Sunspot: that’s Alamogordo, which is a city of 30,000 people an hour’s drive away from Sunspot.

I don’t think it’s been mentioned that Sunspot is not officially a city, or town, or village? It’s an unincorporated community (maybe 50 or 100 people live there?) about half an hour’s drive south of a village (Cloudcroft, population ~700). Those really low populations are partially explained by: these are settled places inside the 1.1 million acres of Lincoln National Forest.

While the U.S. Forest Service, the operators of the Lincoln National Forest, have their own criminal investigation unit (USFS Law Enforcement and Investigations), it seems like the FBI got involved because
1 as some of the commenters here pointed out, Sacramento Peak is fairly close to White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base
2 The National Solar Observatory’s Sunspot Solar Observatory and Apache Point Observatory are both on Sacramento Peak, and they’re places where multiple universities and research institutions across the United States have invested personnel, projects, etc. into.