Ob­ser­va­tory evac­u­a­tion still enigma

Sta­tion ded­i­cated to study­ing sun at cen­ter of a mys­tery here on Earth

Tulsa World - - Datelines - By Robert Moore and Matt Zapotosky The Wash­ing­ton Post — Chris Pa­gan

SUNSPOT, N.M. — 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, 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 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 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 fa­cil­i­ties, the so­lar ob­ser­va­tory in Sunspot is not usu­ally shrouded in such se­crecy.

The fa­cil­ity 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 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.

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,” he 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.

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 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 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 evac­u­a­tiont.

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.”

Sun­day: Mon­day: Tues­day: Wed­nes­day: Thurs­day: Fri­day: Satur­day: SKYWATCH

The first quar­ter moon oc­curs to­day at 6:14 p.m. Af­ter the sky has dark­ened the moon will be to the right of the planet Saturn. Tonight the two ob­jects are sep­a­rated by 8½ de­grees. To­mor­row night they will be closer when the moon ap­pears 5 de­grees to the left of Saturn.

Af­ter evening twi­light go out­side and look to the north. High in the north­east is the con­stel­la­tion of Cas­siopeia. It looks like the let­ter W ro­tated 90 de­grees. Cas­siopeia is a queen sit­ting on a throne. About 15 de­grees west of Cas­siopeia is her hus­band, Cepheus. The stars that form Cepheus are not as bright as Cas­siopeia, but the con­stel­la­tion is in a rel­a­tively empty por­tion of the sky. The king is also sit­ting in a throne, and the stars form a square re­sem­bling the base of the throne, and a star to the north of the square forms the top of the throne.

In the con­stel­la­tion of An­dromeda is a dou­ble star that is of­ten over­looked. Al­mach is the bot­tom-most star in An­dromeda, whose shape re­sem­bles the let­ter V, vis­i­ble in the east north­east. A small tele­scope re­veals the two stars, one ap­pear­ing a golden yellow and the other blue. The blue star also has two more stars it or­bits with, but they are much more dif­fi­cult to de­tect, mak­ing Al­mach a quadru­ple star sys­tem.

The moon tonight is about 4 de­grees above the planet Mars. Both ob­jects will stay near each other for the du­ra­tion of the night, but the dis­tance be­tween them will not change much as they move west.

The In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion makes a bright brief pass through the sky tonight. At 9:15 p.m. the space sta­tion is 10 de­grees above the south­west hori­zon and near the head of Scor­pius. The ISS will only vis­i­ble for about two min­utes, but will be­come five times brighter be­fore it slips into Earth's shadow 34 de­grees above the south­west hori­zon.

Tonight the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion will be vis­i­ble longer and will ap­pear brighter than yes­ter­day. The jour­ney tonight starts at 8:23 p.m. when the space sta­tion is just be­low the con­stel­la­tion Scor­pius. The space­craft passes just to the north of Saturn be­fore reach­ing its max­i­mum height of 55 de­grees in the south­east at 8:26 p.m. Sim­i­lar to last night the ISS will not make it to the op­po­site hori­zon as it dis­ap­pears into Earth's shadow in the mid­dle of the con­stel­la­tion An­dromeda.

To­day marks the end of sum­mer and the be­gin­ning of au­tumn, though the Au­tum­nal Equinox does not oc­cur un­til this af­ter­noon at 8:54 p.m. Thus to­day, the sun is di­rectly over­head at the equa­tor, and day and night are ap­prox­i­mately equal in length. The sun will con­tinue mov­ing south­ward in our sky to­ward the Tropic of Capri­corn as we progress through fall.

DY­LAN TAYLOR-LEHMAN/Alam­ogordo Daily News via AP

The en­trance to Na­tional So­lar Ob­ser­va­tory is blocked near Alam­ogordo, New Mex­ico, on Fri­day.

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