Solar observatory in New Mexico reopens after mysterious evacuation, conspiracy theories remain

SUNSPOT – The National Solar Observatory facility in Sunspot has reopened following an evacuation ordered by the FBI on Sept. 6.

“Everything’s back up and running with as much normalcy as we can expect. We’re starting right where we left off, and we’re going to keep going,” said Sunspot Solar Observatory Director and New Mexico State University astronomy professor R.T. James McAteer.

Employees have not been told what prompted the evacuation but are expecting a staff meeting Tuesday, with a news conference likely to follow sometime this week, said Heidi Sanchez, the education and public outreach coordinator of the Sunspot Astronomy and Visitors Center.

Staff was anticipating a line of news vans and curiosity seekers following the 11-day shutdown, but in the two hours after opening at 9 a.m., there were few visitors or media, Sanchez said. 

“Now that we’re officially open and you don’t have to sneak on, it’s not such a draw. I anticipate probably this weekend (will be busier),” she said.

The evacuation

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, the organization that oversees the observatory, reported Sunday that the site had been evacuated due to “law enforcement investigation of criminal activity” at Sacramento Peak, the mountaintop on which the observatory is located.

Authorities determined there was no risk to staff and that regular work could commence on Monday, the release stated.

“AURA was concerned the suspect may pose a threat to the people that live and work on site. AURA is extremely safety conscious when it comes to employees working in remote areas, and when they get any information like that, they are always going to act safety-first for the employees,” McAtee said.

Around 20 people were evacuated from the facility, including researchers, maintenance workers, and residents.

Employees doing research at the facility were able to telecommute from home during the time they were barred from the Observatory, McAtee said.

“I assured them from the very beginning that they were not going to lose out on getting paid,” he said.

Bruce Sagma, the facility’s maintenance chief, said this was the first time the facility had experienced anything like the evacuation. AURA offered to take care of employees who didn’t have anywhere to stay, he said.

“All residents that were on site were offered hotels if they didn’t have relatives to stay with. Our company was very generous in making sure everyone was taken care of,” Sagma said.

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