Observatory evacuation still enigma
Station dedicated to studying sun at center of a mystery here on Earth
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.
The entrance to National Solar Observatory is blocked near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on Friday.