Last week, U.S. government officials ordered the immediate evacuation of the National Solar Observatory facility located on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico. Soon thereafter, the nearby post office was evacuated, leaving the tiny community bereft of two of it’s primary functions, and people all over the nation wondering what would have prompted FBI helicopters to descend upon the quiet group of white buildings peaking out from the forested hills. If the sudden evacuation itself weren’t cause enough for alarm, concerns grew dramatically when it was revealed that federal law enforcement had left local authorities completely in the dark — prompting a whole slew of conspiracy theories regarding the nature of the work being done at the observatory, and just what could have happened to justify both the observed response from federal officials and the accompanying secrecy.
Otero County Sheriff Benny House was clearly frustrated by the lack of communication when addressing local media outlets immediately following the evacuation. He was quoted in local media outlets as saying:
The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on. We’ve got people up there (at Sunspot) that requested us to standby while they evacuate it. Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why. The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say…. But for the FBI to get involved that quick and be so secretive about it, there was a lot of stuff going on up there… There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers but nobody would tell us anything.”
For ten days, the observatory and nearby buildings sat quiet, empty of even a security presence from the law enforcement officials that had conducted the evacuation, which alongside the noticeable silence from officials only served to exacerbate conspiracy theories ranging from employees of the observatory spotting an incoming alien spaceship to perhaps more credible concerns about espionage in the facility located so close to the White Sands missile test range, where a number of different forms of ordnance see testing and frequent use by the U.S. military.
As of Monday, however, the National Solar Observatory reopened after the ten day hiatus, releasing a statement that finally shed a little light onto the circumstances of the rapid closure and evacuation. The evacuation, it seems, was based on the limitations of local law enforcement — something that might not sit too well with Sheriff Benny House, who seemed rather miffed about not being included in the evacuation proceedings. Put simply, they seemed to believe there was a potential threat to the facility and weren’t confident an adequate response could be mounted in a timely manner.
AURA [The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy] has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak. 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.
The decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat. 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.
For now, it seems, authorities are confident that the threat has past — but what exactly the threat was remains unclear. The facility is far from a “high security” location, despite the strategic advantages of observing the nearby weapons testing range, but a threat that warrants evacuation sounds less like espionage and more like concerns about a disgruntled former employee or terrorist attack. Why a terrorist would choose such a remote observatory, of course, begs some questions of its own.