The national Sunspot Solar Observatory in an isolated, mountainous region of New Mexico was set to reopen Monday after it was shut down on Sept. 6 with little explanation.
The group that manages the facility announced on the observatory’s Facebook page Sunday that it had been “cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak.”
During that time, said the statement from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), “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.”
Officials had said very little about why the observatory, near Alamagordo, shut down. Local law enforcement officials said the FBI was involved in the closure — which the feds have not confirmed or denied — and the resulting lack of information led to all kinds of conspiracy theories.
“It was our decision to evacuate the facility,” AURA spokeswoman Shari Lifson said after the observatory closed, according to the Alamogordo Daily News. “I am actually not sure (when the facility was vacated) but it will stay vacated until further notice.”
According to the newspaper, Benny House, the sheriff of Otero County, said the FBI was involved in what he described as an elaborate shutdown process and said “the FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on.”
“There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers, but nobody would tell us anything,” House told the Daily News.
He told the Albuquerque Journal his department got a call from “folks that work at the laboratory” who asked “if we could send a deputy to stand by while they were evacuating. All the employees were packing up and leaving.”
Bureau spokesman Frank Fisher would neither confirm nor deny FBI involvement, according to the Journal.
The closing led people to wonder whether the closure had something to do with alien activity.
“Some say the evacuation could be part of a government effort to cover up a discovery involving aliens, an impending solar flare or something else extra-planetary,” wrote the CNET technology website.
“Others on Reddit and elsewhere think the security issue may involve a foreign power attempting to use the observatory’s antennas to spy on nearby White Sands Missile Range.”
CNET noted that the U.S. military built the observatory in 1947, “when it realized the sun could interfere with radio communications. The National Science Foundation ran the facility from the 1960s until this year, when operation was transferred to AURA and New Mexico State University.”
The statement from AURA on Sunday said the observatory was closed “based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat.
“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 statement did not explain the “criminal activity” allegedly discovered at the observatory, or mention anything about arrests.
It did acknowledge how the “lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some.
“However, our desire to provide additional information had to be balanced against the risk that, if spread at the time, the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation. That was a risk we could not take,” said the statement.
Given the amount of attention online and in media around the world that the closure attracted, officials plan to have extra security around when the observatory reopens to handle an expected “unusual number of visitors to the site,” the Facebook statement said.
In some circles, the announcement of suspected “criminal activity” at the observatory hasn’t stopped speculation of something more sinister at hand.
“Is there more to the Sunspot National Solar Observatory story?” asks one poll that popped up on Twitter Monday morning.
The reopening might not be enough to silence the conspiracy theories, suggested Alan Boyle, the aerospace and science editor for GeekWire.
“The observatory’s staff of about nine employees should be back at work this week. It shouldn’t take long for nearby residents to be back in their homes, for researchers to be back at the Dunn Solar Telescope, and for tourists to be back at the Sunspot Visitors Center,” Boyle wrote.
“But a full resolution of the mystery will have to wait until criminal charges are filed, assuming that the investigation bore fruit.
“And if the mystery hangs on with no criminal charges, with no further disclosures, don’t be surprised if Agents Mulder and Scully tackle the Sunspot Incident in a future ‘X-Files’ episode.