‘There are plenty of secrets in New Mexico’: Solar observatory reopens

by WorldTribune Staff, September 18, 2018

The operator of the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico said on Sept. 17 that the observatory has reopened.

The facility was shut down on Sept. 6 amid reports of FBI activity at the observatory.

The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope at the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico. / National Science Foundation photo

The FBI said it was investigating a janitor who worked at the facility who was “utilizing the wireless Internet service of the National Solar Observatory … to download and distribute child pornography.”

Officials said the observatory did not communicate with the public during the FBI’s investigation because they didn’t want the suspect to be tipped off.

“[O]ur 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,” officials said, according to Fox News.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which operates the observatory, said in a statement that it was cooperating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity which occurred in the area.

Related: Why does FBI care about solar hurricanes? Observatories closed worldwide for unspecified reasons, September 12, 2018

AURA did not go into specifics on what the criminal activity was.

“AURA has been cooperating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak,” the statement said. “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.

“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. 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.”

Otero County Sheriff Benny House told the Alamogordo Daily News: “The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.”

House was not happy with the FBI’s reticence that continued after the observatory reopened.

“I think it’s chicken s–t the way the FBI handled it. I have a responsibility to protect my citizens,” House told ABC-7’s New Mexico Mobile Newsroom on Sept. 17. “I think it’s paramount that we know what the threat is so we can provide safety.”

Data from the observatory’s Dunn Solar Telescope, which conducts routine observations of the sun, is used by scientists around the world.

A report by Sciencemag.org noted that the observatory is situated at Sacramento Peak, which overlooks Holloman Air Force Base. Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Test range could potentially be seen from the observatory.

“New Mexico is a center of national-security-related science, and for that reason it has also been a prominent venue for foreign espionage,” Aftergood told Sciencemag.org. “Spies go where the secrets are, and there are plenty of secrets in New Mexico.” The observatory is about 85 miles southwest of Roswell.

But, Aftergood says, a solar observatory might not be the best place to conduct such activity. “I imagine most or all of its sensors are directed up.”

Aftergood wondered if someone at the New Mexico observatory somehow inadvertently spotted a classified satellite or transmission, triggering the shutdown.

If that were the case, Aftergood said, it could take time to interview all relevant personnel, get them to sign nondisclosure agreements, and do background investigations to make sure they are not foreign agents.

“Sounds like the ‘X-Files’ to me,” one Facebook user posted.

Others speculated UFOs had been spotted by observatory employees. “They found proof of extra terrestrials and the government has to suppress this as always,” a Twitter user alleged.

New Mexico is known worldwide for the 1947 Roswell incident in which the U.S. government recovered an alien spacecraft that crash-landed in the area, according to widely-believed but never officially confirmed reports. Roswell is less than a three-hour drive from Sunspot.


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