Closure of NM solar observatory a mystery

One of the solar telescopes at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot. (Nick Pappas/Albuquerque Journal)

The truth is out there – but nobody will go on the record about it.

Rumors are swirling and authorities are tight-lipped following the evacuation of an observatory in southwest New Mexico last week.

The National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, near Alamogordo, was evacuated last Thursday, along with a nearby post office, and has remained closed since without explanation.

According to the facility’s website, the observatory and surrounding area are closed until further notice “due to unforeseen circumstances.”

“The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy is addressing a security issue … and has decided to temporarily vacate the facility as a precautionary measure,” AURA spokeswoman Shari Lifson said in a statement. “We have no further comment at this time.”

In the Lincoln National Forest, the observatory has been involved in solar research since 1947. Since the closure, the news has spread nationwide with headlines like “I’m Definitely Not Saying It’s Aliens,” and lighting up internet message boards with fervor and speculation.

Lifson said AURA is working with the proper authorities, but would not name them.

The closure even caught Otero County Sheriff Benny House by surprise.

“Some folks that work at the laboratory called us, asked us if we could send a deputy to stand by while they were evacuating,” House said during a phone interview Wednesday. “All the employees were packing up and leaving.”

House said they didn’t get any more answers at the observatory, but staff members told deputies the FBI had been there.

“Nobody would give us any information on what was going on,” House said, before the phone call cut out and repeated attempts to reach him again were unsuccessful.

FBI spokesman Frank Fisher would not confirm or deny the agency’s involvement but referred all questions to AURA.

U.S. Postal Service spokesman Rod Spurgeon called the situation “strange” after authorities walked into the nearby post office without warning and told the clerk to evacuate.

“I wasn’t present … so I’m not sure which law enforcement agency told us to evacuate,” Spurgeon said.

He said no timeline was given on when the office would be able to reopen.

Spurgeon said he is waiting on a call, but doesn’t know from whom as he has not heard from any authorities or agency.

“It’s shrouded in mystery,” he said.

An employee at the nearby Apache Point Observatory said they are also in the dark.

“We know about as little as anybody,” the employee said.

The employee said people in the area have seen unknown authorities hovering in helicopters and driving up in vehicles.

“Nobody would know who they are – you stop them and they won’t tell you anyway,” he said.

The employee said there is not enough information to “worry about it,” but the mystery continues to deepen among locals.

“That’s what happens when you do something and don’t tell anybody why,” he said.

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