spaceSpace and Physics

Why Did The FBI Close Down The Solar Observatory In New Mexico?


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


The Solar Sunspot Observatory in New Mexico. Google Earth

Everyone’s had a bit of fun furiously speculating about why a National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Sunspot, New Mexico, was suddenly closed earlier this month. What else did anyone expect? Combine two of conspiracy theorists’ favorite tropes – the FBI and the Sun – and you’ve got a recipe for some wild ideas, both serious and the decidedly more tongue-in-cheek.

Well, we’ve got some news everyone: according to a press release from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the specific observatory in question has been re-opened. All those that left their homes will now be coming back to the site, and this week, all employees will return.


The statement describes the close-down of the facility, which occurred in an “orderly fashion”, as being related to a security issue – something an earlier statement alluded to.

“AURA has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak,” the statement explains. “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.”

Fair enough: that’s standard procedure for these sorts of things. It doesn’t mention the FBI at any point, but that’s normal too. Their remit is covered by the phrase “law enforcement investigation”. Evacuees have told other news outlets, however, that the FBI was certainly involved.


It’s entirely unknown what criminal activity they’re referring to, one that was serious enough to trigger an evacuation, but until more facts become clear to the powers that be, we won’t be hearing anything else.


“The decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat,” the statement adds. “AURA determined that moving the small number of on-site staff and residents off the mountain was the most prudent and effective action to ensure their safety.”

The investigation continued, and it was determined that there was no risk to staff. As of September 17, it’s business as usual. Well, except for one thing: thanks to the huge amount of publicity the closure garnered, there's now an “unusual number of visitors” to the site, which requires a temporary increase in security.

Although the media can’t help but report on such shenanigans, this is a good example of why sometimes it’s best to leave the security services to their job. Wide-ranging, serious-sounding conspiracy nonsense has clearly made the lives of those working at the observatory in Sunspot more difficult than necessary.


AURA notes that the lack of communication during the facility’s closure created a bit of an information vacuum – one that was filled in with bullshit. They stress, though, that this was a gamble: if news of the security services swoop took place at the time, it “would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement operation.” This, they say, was a risk they couldn’t take.

That, in itself, is pretty intriguing. It appears that there’s just a single suspect here, and they were hoping to catch them in the act of whatever it was they were doing. It’s not clear at this point if they succeeded or not, but the threat, whatever it was, appears to be over.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory, which has been staring at the Sun since 1947, has a small staff of around nine, featuring researchers from both AURA and New Mexico State University. Hopefully whatever happened, and the subsequent attention from the public, hasn’t rattled them too much.


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