Sunspot Observatory 'closed until further notice'
SUNSPOT - Sunspot Observatory was closed and evacuated Sept. 6 due to an undisclosed security risk. Federal officials aren't saying why it was closed, and the silence has led to international media coverage and plenty of speculation.
Authorities remain tight-lipped.
The FBI referred all questions to the group that manages the site, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. Officials there say they’re working with authorities.
AURA released a statement Friday, stating it has "decided that the observatory will remain closed until further notice due to an ongoing security concern. The rest of the National Solar Observatory (NSO) facilities remain open and are operating normally."
“Nothing’s changed from last week,” AURA spokeswoman Shari Lifson said by phone Thursday afternoon. Lifson offered no further information.
Security guards from Alamogordo private security firm Red Rock Security were posted at the observatory's gate on Thursday due to the amount of curious visitors who have come to the site since the closure, said Red Rock security guard Angel Escalante.
Approximately 35 people had come to the site by Friday afternoon, she said.
"(Thursday) was way worse and that's why they had us come up here — tons of people were trying to get in," Escalante said.
The guards are stationed at the gate around the clock, but they have not been in the facility and have no more of an idea about what's going on than anyone else, Escalante said.
"We're just mainly right here making sure people don't come past this point," said Red Rock guard Joe Mangum. "Everybody was evacuated, and from that point, that's as far as they can go."
A tent belonging to an employee and resident of the observatory was set up near the gate. The employee is allowed to enter the facility to do routine maintenance but can't stay in his home, Escalante said.
"He just comes in to do what's he's got to do, work his shift, and that's it," she said.
Everyone in the facility and the Sunspot community was evacuated on Sept. 6, said Sunspot Solar Observatory Director and New Mexico State University astronomy professor R.T. James McAteer.
NMSU's four employees at Sunspot were evacuated, as were employees of AURA, McAteer said. AURA announced Friday that approximately nine NMSU and AURA staff are employed at the observatory.
The U.S. Postal Service, which operates the Sunspot Post Office, evacuated its employees as well, though McAteer said he did not know how many people worked at the facility.
There were also about 12 to 15 residents who were evacuated, he said.
“Last Thursday, we got a phone call in the morning from AURA who told us to say that they were temporarily evacuating the site and asked us to evacuate our people,” McAteer said. “So, I called our people up and asked them to leave in a very sensible and calm manner and locked everything up. We’ve been out of there since Thursday morning.”
McAteer said in an email to the Associated Press that it will be up to the astronomy research association to decide when Sunspot reopens.
“We have paused observations, and are taking this opportunity to catch up with the back log of data from previous months,” he said.
Located atop Sacramento Peak, the observatory was established in 1947. It overlooks the Tularosa Basin – an expanse of desert that includes the city of Alamogordo, Holloman Air Force Base, White Sands Missile Range, White Sands National Monument and the site of the world’s first atomic bomb test.
The telescope at Sunspot was originally built by the U.S. Air Force. After several years of operation, it was transferred to the National Solar Observatory, which is part of the National Science Foundation.
New Mexico State University in 2016 launched an initiative funded by the foundation to upgrade and update the facility through the newly formed Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium.
Sunspot’s one-of-a-kind telescope produces some of the sharpest images of the sun available in the world, officials said.
Data from observations done at Sunspot is sent to New Mexico State University servers and can be used by researchers around the world.
“Those are the two building where we have our employees at in Sunspot: the telescope and the visitor’s center,” McAteer said. The staff is responsible for the guided tours and scientific data, he said.
The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope, which McAteer and his team operate, rotates on a mercury float bearing at the top of the tower.
The mercury was not the reason for the closure, McAteer said.
“There’s no mercury incident. That’s a completely different set of protocols that would not have involved them locking all the doors,” McAteer said. “We have a very regular maintenance routine. There is no cause for concern there.”
There's been no word whether, or if, evacuations will be lifted.
The observatory posted this message to its website and social media platforms:
"On Thursday Sept 6, AURA made the decision to temporarily close Sunspot. The Sunspot Solar Observatory continues to work closely with AURA in order to allow for us to reopen as soon as possible. With the excitement this closure has generated, we hope you will come and visit us when we do reopen, and see for yourself the services we provide for science and public outreach in heliophysics. If you have any questions about the science we perform at the telescope, or about the outreach we provide through our Visitors Center, please contact our Director, Dr McAteer at email@example.com "
The Associated Press contributed to this story.