Questions, conspiracy theories uncorked amid mysterious closure of Sunspot Observatory in New Mexico

Teri Webster

 

Sunspot Observatory in New Mexico was closed and evacuated on Sept. 6 following a “security risk” that has yet to be explained. Officials haven’t said much since then, employees have not been able to return, and that has led to questions and speculation.

“Nothing’s changed from last week,” Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, spokeswoman Shari Lifson told USA Today on Friday.

Other media issued reports that read like satire.

“I can tell you it definitely wasn’t aliens,” a spokeswoman for the National Solar Observatory told the Washington Post.

New Mexico has long been linked to reports of secretive military testing and conspiracy theories about UFOs and aliens.

What is the facility?

The facility is a part of the National Solar Observatory and AURA maintains it, according to the report. The observatory sits high in the Sacramento Mountains. The nearest city is Alamogordo located about one hour away at the base of the mountains.

“Last Thursday, we got a phone call in the morning from AURA who told us to say that they were temporarily evacuating the site and asked us to evacuate our people,” Sunspot Solar Observatory director R.T. James McAteer told the news outlet. “So, I called our people up and asked them to leave in a very sensible and calm manner and locked everything up. We’ve been out of there since Thursday morning.”

When will things return to normal?

There is no indication of when, or if, evacuations will be lifted and people can return.

McAteer, a professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, told the news outlet the Sunspot Solar Observatory is run by a group of universities that provide funding to operate the telescope and the visitor’s center.

Employees work in both the telescope area and in the visitor’s center, he said.

Four employees at Sunspot were evacuated Sept. 6, along with five or six employees of AURA, according to the report. Employees in the U.S. Postal Service’s Sunspot office were also evacuated, although the number was not known.

Additionally, about 12 to 15 residents who were evacuated, McAteer said.

“The whole site was evacuated,” he told USA Today.

Could it be related to mercury?

The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope rotates on a mercury float bearing at the top of the tower. But McAteer emphasized that the mercury did not lead to the closure.

“There’s no mercury incident. That’s a completely different set of protocols that would not have involved them locking all the doors,” McAteer told USA Today. “We have a very regular maintenance routine. There is no cause for concern there.”

Initial media reports stated that the FBI was involved in the shutdown, which has not been confirmed by Observatory officials, according to reports.