Elvis wrote:If it's aliens, do Border Patrol and ICE get involved?
A New Mexico solar observatory has been evacuated for a week. Not even the guards know why.
An employee and resident of the National Solar Observatory set up a tent, far right, near the entrance, in Sunspot, N.M., on Sept. 14, 2018. (Dylan Taylor-Lehman / AP)
Robert Moore and Matt Zapotosky
At a small solar observatory tucked away in the woods of a national forest here, scientists and other personnel were commanded last week to leave at once. A week later, the facility remains vacant, and no one is willing to say why.
The mysterious and lengthy evacuation, in a state known for secretive military testing and a suspected UFO crash, has spawned a wealth of speculation.
Did the researchers spot something extraterrestrial? Was the solar telescope hacked by a foreign power and deployed to spy on, say, the state's missile testing range? Or is there an innocuous explanation, suppressed only because of corporate and government resistance to transparency?
On Friday, the entrance to the National Solar Observatory was blocked by yellow crime scene tape and two security guards, who said even they had been kept in the dark. The guards, from Red Rock Security & Patrol in Las Cruces, New Mexico, didn't give their names, but said it was the first day the company was guarding the entrance and only the "director and an assistant" were allowed in. There was no obvious sign of law enforcement activity.
"We don't know anything. We're just as curious as anyone else," one guard said.
A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group that runs the facility said the organization was addressing a "security issue," but would offer no additional information, other than, "I can tell you it definitely wasn't aliens." She said Friday the facility "will remain closed until further notice." Neither the FBI - which was spotted on the premises around the time of the evacuation - nor those who worked at the facility would tell local law enforcement what had happened, said Otero County Sheriff Benny House.
"They wouldn't give us any details," House said. "I've got ideas, but I don't want to put them out there. 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."
Unlike some of New Mexico's other research facilities, the solar observatory in Sunspot is not usually shrouded in such secrecy.
The facility - in the Lincoln National Forest in the southern part of the state - is open to the public, and the scientists who work there offer guided tours of the site, said James McAteer, a professor at New Mexico State University and director of the Sunspot Solar Observatory consortium. When they're not doing that, they use a special telescope and other instruments to study the sun. There are homes on the site where staff members live.
The Sunspot observatory sits at more than 9,000 feet and is part of a larger astronomy research facility on the site. The adjacent Apache Point Observatory, a collection of telescopes about a half-mile away, was operating as normal on Friday, with about a dozen cars parked outside.
House, the sheriff, said that just before 10 a.m. on Sept. 6, staff at the Sunspot facility called to report they were "evacuating the building," and asked if deputies could assist. He said a sergeant and a deputy were dispatched and told upon arrival that the FBI had been there earlier.
But neither staff, nor the bureau, would explain why the facility had to be vacated, House said. He said a volunteer fire chief claimed the FBI had told him there had been a "credible threat" but would provide no details.
The sheriff's office, House said, saw no evidence of a threat, and left after a few hours.
"We tried to find out the threat and what their concerns were," House said. "They wouldn't identify anything. They were pretty hush mouthed about it."
McAteer said his consortium assigns four researchers to the facility, although the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), another consortium, manages the buildings and other infrastructure with another four or five people.
That consortium, McAteer said, 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.
"My people, we didn't do the evacuation, and we do the science," McAteer said.
The property manager also came in to the post office on the facility and asked the woman working there to leave, but gave no indication why that was necessary, said Rod Spurgeon, a Postal Service spokesman. Spurgeon said post office operations have continued at the nearby Cloudcroft facility.
Kinsey Featherston, a spokeswoman for Rep. Stevan Pearce, R-N.M., said the congressman's office had reached out to the FBI and were told "it is an ongoing investigation."
"We will continue monitoring the situation, but at this time, we have no information," she said.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment, referring questions about the matter to the consortium that manages the buildings. Shari Lifson, an AURA spokeswoman, said in a statement that her group was "addressing a security issue" and had "decided to temporarily vacate the facility as a precautionary measure." She said they were "working with the proper authorities on this issue," although she declined to specify who those authorities were.
Lifson also declined to specify the security issue, other than to dispute the idea aliens were involved.
The solar observatory is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Roswell, New Mexico, the site of a now infamous crash in 1947 that the Air Force later claimed was an experiment designed to detect Soviet nuclear activity by monitoring sound waves. The incident sparked so much interest that there is now a UFO museum in the city.
House said his deputies spotted a Black Hawk helicopter in the area around the time the building was evacuated - although he noted that is not uncommon.
Sunspot and Apache Point offer scenic views of the Tularosa Basin, which includes two sensitive military sites, including Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range. A public affairs officer at White Sands said there was no testing or other activity at the range that would have prompted the evacuation in Sunspot.
As of Friday, the observatory was still shuttered, although McAteer said the researchers were ready to return "as soon as possible." The observatory even seemed to embrace the interest in the mysterious evacuation, writing on its website, "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."
Remote solar observatory remains closed after mysterious evacuation
By Adam Mann Sep. 14, 2018 , 4:45 PM
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.
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.”
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.
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