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Sunspot observatory to reopen, with little explanation for closure

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The closure is ending, but the mystery remains.

Following its abrupt evacuation Sept. 6, the Sunspot Solar Observatory near Alamogordo is set to “transition back to regular operations” today, officials announced Sunday afternoon.

A spokeswoman for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy said in a statement that the decision to “temporarily vacate” and cease “science activities” was made in response to “a security issue” and “an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak.”

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

“The facility closed down in an orderly fashion and is now re-opening,” AURA spokeswoman Shari Lifson wrote. “The residents that vacated their homes will be returning to the site, and all employees will return to work this week.”

U.S. Postal Service spokesman Rod Spurgeon said Sunday evening that a post office located on observatory property will reopen when it receives word that the evacuation has been cleared and it is safe to resume operations.

Lifson said that moving the small number of on-site staff and residents off of the mountain “was the most prudent and effective action to ensure their safety,” given the logistical challenges associated with protecting people at such a remote location. Based on recent developments in the investigation, AURA has determined there is no risk to staff.

The story of the evacuation quickly went national, and alien enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists took to internet message boards to offer wide-ranging theories for the unexpected closure. AURA wrote that it is hopeful that the national attention it’s received in recent days will draw new visitors to the site.

“With the excitement this closure has generated, we hope you will come and visit us as we reopen, and see for yourself the services we provide for science and public outreach in heliophysics,” read an update on the observatory’s website.

Lifson acknowledged that the lack of communications about the evacuation “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.”

The Otero County sheriff told the Journal last week that observatory employees called deputies to report that the FBI had asked them to evacuate.

Asked about the case last week, FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said there were “no extraterrestrials” involved, and he referred questions to AURA. He could not provide any additional information Sunday.

“FBI policy is to neither confirm nor deny investigations,” Fisher wrote. “That’s all I can say at this time.”



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