A solar observatory in the mountains of New Mexico has reopened 10 days after it was suddenly closed and its employees evacuated due to a mysterious security threat, baffling locals and the internet and whipping conspiracy theorists into a frenzy.
On Sunday, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) announced that it is reopening the Sunspot Observatory, which it manages, and that employees and the residents who had been forced to leave their homes on the site are now allowed to return.
"AURA 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," Shari Lifson, an AURA spokesperson, said in a statement Sunday. "For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location."
The statement provided no further details on the nature of the presumed threat, or on the status of the investigation.
Officials had suddenly shuttered the facility on Sept. 6, calling the Otero County Sheriff’s Office for help evacuating employees and people who live on site. The FBI was also involved, though the agency has remained tight-lipped, referring all questions to AURA, which refused to comment on federal authorities' involvement.
In response to BuzzFeed News' questions about the criminal investigation, an FBI spokesperson said Sunday that the agency "can neither confirm nor deny whether we are conducting an investigation."
The National Solar Observatory (NSO) is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, and all of its other facilities remain open, including the Apache Point Observatory, which is about a mile away from Sunspot in New Mexico. That has added to questions and speculation about what exactly happened at Sacramento Peak.
So far, AURA's explanations regarding the situation have been vague, alluding to a threat grave enough to order the evacuations and take other safety precautions, including hiring security guards.
Established in 1947 by the military, the Sunspot observatory sits atop a mountain peak in the Lincoln National Forest and boasts one of the "largest active solar telescopes in the world." The facility is usually open to the public, but as of last week, its entrance was blocked by a single sash of yellow police tape, according to photos taken by local media.
The rural site's "logistical challenges" were among the main reasons for the evacuation, Lifson explained in Sunday's statement, citing the difficulty of "protecting personnel at such a remote location" and a "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," she said.
The utter lack of details has perplexed local law enforcement, who said that they too have been left in the dark about what's going on at the observatory, and have received no response from federal authorities or AURA when they've requested information.
"If there is a threat to local residences and the area, they should be filling us in so we can also help take care of that and know what is going on in our community," Otero County Sheriff Benny House told BuzzFeed News Sunday. "No one has reached out to us at all and we are not hearing anything but what conspiracy theorists are saying. It's all very weird."
Last week, House said he and other officers briefly saw officials with the FBI, as well as a Black Hawk helicopter, in the area around Sunspot, but that the site subsequently appeared completely abandoned and quiet.
Sunspot’s “temporary” closure bubbled around local media until exploding on the internet, fueling thousands of discussions as to what could be happening in New Mexico, a hotbed for conspiracy theories surrounding secretive government operations and alleged UFO sightings. People have posited a vast and predominantly ludicrous array of reasons for the closure, ranging from anthrax to apocalyptic solar flares, foreign government espionage, and, of course, aliens.
But even some former NSO employees and other scientists have raised questions about the mysterious shutdown, calling it "fishy" and "pretty weird."
"Nothing like this has ever happened before at an observatory," John Varsik, a data scientist and telescope operator at California's Big Bear Solar Observatory who worked at Sunspot about two decades ago, said Friday.
"It's all very fishy," he said.