The Sunspot Solar Observatory abruptly closed on Sept. 6 “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Now authorities are providing a partial explanation for why the FBI mysteriously evacuated and shut down the New Mexico facility.
The reason? Some sort of criminal activity. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which oversees the observatory, said the organization was cooperating with law enforcement as they worked to neutralize a potential “threat to the safety of local staff and residents.”
“AURA has been cooperating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak,” an AURA spokeswoman, which oversees the observatory, told VICE News in a statement. “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.”
What exactly that criminal activity was, however, remains unclear. AURA and the FBI have been extremely tight-lipped about the situation at Sunspot, which led to wild speculation about what caused the shutdown at the facility. Even local law enforcement seemed perplexed about the situation. Otero County Sheriff Benny House told the Alamogordo Daily News that his department was left completely in the dark and noted that he had spotted Blackhawk helicopters circling the area. AURA acknowledged this in its statement released on Sunday, even as it declined to explain further.
“We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some,” the statement said. “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.”
AURA predicts that the incident will trigger an uptick in tourism at Sunspot and will temporarily employ a security service as the facility reopens.
Cover image: NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 21: People view the solar eclipse at 'Top of the Rock' observatory at Rockefeller Center, August 21, 2017 in New York City. While New York City is not in the path of totality for the solar eclipse, around 72 percent of the sun will be covered by the moon during the peak time of the partial eclipse. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)