World

Undisclosed 'security concern' closes top solar observatory in New Mexico

AP, Reuters, Staff Report

An observatory in the mountains of southern New Mexico that is dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of the sun has found itself at the center of a mystery that is creating a buzz here on Earth.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory, established in 1947, has been closed for more than a week. Authorities remained tight-lipped Friday, saying only that an undisclosed security concern was behind the decision to abruptly vacate and lock up the remote facility on Sept. 6.

The FBI referred all questions to the group that manages the site, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. Officials there say they are working with authorities.

The association said in an update Friday that 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 facilities remain open and are operating normally.”

The facility’s location, near military installations two hours’ drive from the town of Roswell, has sparked speculation on social media. Roswell was the site of a famous 1947 discovery of alleged crashed UFO debris, which the U.S. Air Force later said were top-secret high-altitude weather balloons.

“Sounds like a case for Mulder & Scully,” tweeted Ian Caverney, referring to the 1990s science fiction television series “The X-Files.”

“This is very abnormal,” Everisto Gomez, a dispatch operator for the Otero County Sheriffs Office, said on Friday.

There is a possibility that the “security concern” is actually related to espionage or a similar operational security issue. The online magazine Drive noted Friday that the observatory’s site atop Sacramento Peak enjoys a wide and largely unobstructed view of the Holloman Air Force Base and the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, both of which regularly host a very wide array of U.S. military research and development programs.

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 are sent to New Mexico State University servers and can be used by researchers around the world.

Solar physicist R.T. James McAteer, who is based at New Mexico State University, said in an email Friday 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.

There are several university employees and association staffers who work at the observatory.