The shutdown of a solar observatory in New Mexico had nothing to do with aliens

Authorities believe a janitor was using the Sunspot Solar Observatory's WiFi to download and distribute child pornography.

The mystery at the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico has been solved, and it had nothing to do with extraterrestrial life — the culprit, it turns out, was something far more sinisterly human.

The observatory, which was suddenly shut down in early September without explanation, was closed due to an investigation into the downloading and distribution of child pornography, according to a federal search warrant application. On Monday, the facility reopened and a spokesperson confirmed to VICE News that the 10-day closure was due to a “criminal activity” that was being investigated.


FBI agents had traced the location of IP addresses linked to child pornography to Sunspot, according to the court documents. The facility’s chief observer told authorities that he had found a laptop hidden in often-vacant office spaces at Sunspot, which authorities now allege was used by a Sunspot janitor to download child pornography through the facility’s WiFi. The janitor had keys to the facility and knew the layout well, and was the only person at the observatory during the time of the downloads, according to the warrant application.

“[The janitor] has a key to the building and unlimited access to the building, and is familiar with which offices are used only a handful of times a year,” the warrant application said, according to the Washington Post.

After authorities seized the laptop, apparently without the janitor’s knowledge, the janitor’s behavior became increasingly erratic. The facility’s chief observer told authorities that he saw the janitor leaving the area where the laptop had been seized, and the janitor claimed that “someone had been entering the Observatory at night, in order to steal the wireless Internet service.” The janitor then became “frantic,” and he started “feverishly” searching the facility, the documents said. The janitor also began warning staff about a “serial killer in the area” and said that he was “fearful that the killer might enter the facility and execute someone.”

Last Friday, the FBI seized several electronic devices from the janitor’s home, according to court documents. No charges have yet been filed, but the investigation is ongoing, federal authorities told Reuters.

As for Sunspot’s sudden shutdown and evacuation — which baffled everyone from local enforcement to national media publications and even triggered speculation that the observatory had made extraterrestrial contact — that was apparently decided by management at the facility itself, according to court documents.

Cover image: People view the solar eclipse at 'Top of the Rock' observatory at Rockefeller Center, August 21, 2017 in New York City. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.