Solar observatory closure wasn't a conspiracy, but it was creepy

A search warrant reveals why the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico was mysteriously evacuated.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
2 min read
Dunn Solar Telescope

The Dunn Solar Telescope at the Sunspot Solar Observatory hides most of itself underground.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

It looks like the explanation for the sudden and mysterious closure of a remote solar observatory in New Mexico is something less out-of-this-world and conspiratorial than many suggested. But it's still disturbing.

A search warrant filed in US District Court in nearby Las Cruces reveals that the Sunspot Solar Observatory was shuttered without explanation by the FBI following an investigation into the facility's janitor, who was allegedly using the observatory's internet network to access child pornography. 

When the same janitor made veiled threats to Sunspot's chief observer during the investigation, the decision was made to evacuate the facility and shut it down for over a week, reports the Albuquerque Journal.

On Sunday, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which manages the facility, announced the observatory would reopen the following day and offered this explanation for the silence that led many online to suspect everything from espionage to aliens was to blame for the shutdown:

"AURA has been cooperating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak," the statement reads. "During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents ... 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."  

It's unclear if authorities have taken any suspects into custody in the case. FBI field offices in Albuquerque and El Paso, Texas, have not responded to requests for comment.

AURA spokesperson Shari Lifson said in an email that the organization cannot comment on an ongoing law enforcement investigation.

Meanwhile the observatory is back to safely staring at the sun and preparing to offer a second set of eyes on our star as part of a collaboration with NASA's recently launched Parker Solar Probe.

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