Mystery continues to surround the sudden shutdown last week of the national Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico, which remained closed Thursday with little explanation offered.
The silence has given rise to guessing games and conspiracy theories bouncing around on social media about what happened at the facility in the Sacramento Mountains, especially given reports that the FBI was involved.
The observatory, near Alamagordo, was evacuated last Thursday, reported the Albuquerque Journal and other local media outlets.
“Sunspot apologizes for the continued closure of the facilities,” a statement on the observatory’s Facebook page said on Sunday. “The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is addressing a security issue at the National Solar Observatory facility at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico and has decided to temporarily vacate the facility as a precautionary measure.
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“AURA, which manages Sacramento Peak with funding from NSF, is working with the proper authorities on this issue. We have no further comment at this time.”
The NSF is the National Science Foundation.
Observatory officials have not confirmed media reports that the FBI was involved in the shutdown.
“It was our decision to evacuate the facility,” AURA spokeswoman Shari Lifson said, according to the Alamagordo Daily News. . “I am actually not sure (when the facility was vacated) but it will stay vacated until further notice.”
According to the Daily News, Benny House, the sheriff of Otero County, said the FBI was involved in what he described as an elaborate shutdown process and said “the FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on.”
“There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers, but nobody would tell us anything,” House said, according to the newspaper, which reported the observatory entrance was marked off with yellow crime scene tape on Friday.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, House said his department got a call from “folks that work at the laboratory” who asked “if we could send a deputy to stand by while they were evacuating. All the employees were packing up and leaving.”
Bureau spokesman Frank Fisher would neither confirm nor deny FBI involvement, according to the Journal.
Meanwhile, people from all over the country are trying to guess what’s going on.
The default position: This has something to do with aliens.
“Some say the evacuation could be part of a government effort to cover up a discovery involving aliens, an impending solar flare or something else extra-planetary,” writes CNET technology website. “Others on Reddit and elsewhere think the security issue may involve a foreign power attempting to use the observatory’s antennas to spy on nearby White Sands Missile Range.”
CNET noted that the U.S. military built the observatory in 1947, “when it realized the sun could interfere with radio communications. The National Science Foundation ran the facility from the 1960s until this year, when operation was transferred to AURA and New Mexico State University.
“Hopefully it isn’t now in the process of being unwillfully transferred to aliens or foreign spies,” CNET writes.
Commenters on the observatory’s Facebook page ran with the alien theory, too.
“When the aliens invade we have nowhere to evacuate to anyway; the truth will be our destiny,” wrote Gene Alexander, one of dozens who have commented on Facebook.
“Something was spotted. And we’re not being told,” wrote a man named Eddie Barnhill.
John Pleites-Sandoval offered a more involved theory: “Maybe a celestial body that we have not encountered in a long while for thousands of years is finally making its way back into our solar system,” he wrote on Facebook.
The closure freaked out the folks at Gizmodo tech website, too.
“This is how it happens when extraterrestrials make contact with Earth,” writes senior editor and reporter Jennings Brown. “It starts with a newspaper report about suspicious activity at a space research facility — government agents and military vehicles. The local sheriff gets angry and confused.
“Then the TV news reports feature interviews with locals saying things like, ‘Nothing really happens here very much. And since nobody knows, it could be almost anything.”