The Mysterious Evacuation of Sunspot Observatory

A year ago today, the FBI suddenly shut down a remote mountaintop observatory with no explanation. The internet went wild with theories.

The Mysterious Evacuation of Sunspot Observatory

About 15 miles outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico, among deep canyons and dense forests, a tiny white object can be seen above the trees at the crest of the Sacramento Mountains. This is the Dunn Solar Telescope of the Sunspot Solar Observatory (SSO), a facility dedicated to studying the Sun. At the observatory and in the tiny self-contained village of Sunspot, populated by SSO researchers and employees, people ordinarily go about their business with little fanfare. But on Thursday, September 6, 2018, the attention of what seemed like the entire galaxy was focused here.

Dr. James McAteer, the facility’s director, gave the order to round up the approximately two-dozen people at the site and take them down the mountain at the behest of the FBI. Soon, serious-looking agents arrived in unmarked vehicles and quickly spread out across the area. No information was given to those being evacuated about what was going on; they were simply asked to leave.

Even the Otero County Sheriff’s Office, whose officers accompanied the federal agents up to the site, wasn’t given any information as to why the FBI was there. They were told only to be ready to provide backup if need be, which greatly alarmed then-Sheriff Benny House, who wondered what he and his men were getting into, especially considering the black helicopters he reported seeing as the search was underway.

“The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on,” House told the Alamogordo Daily News. “We’ve got people up there that requested us to stand by while they evacuate it. Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why. The FBI were up there. What their purpose was, nobody will say.”

The FBI agents wrapped up their search of the facility with surprising rapidity, getting back into their vehicles and driving away as if their hasty arrival was playing in reverse. The sheriff’s officers were told to stand guard for a little while longer, but they too soon left, leaving a ghost town of telescopes and empty dwellings at the top of the mountain. Nobody was to be allowed back into the facility until further notice.

The news of the sudden closure of a space research facility by the U.S. government immediately went viral. Many curious people assumed that the observatory’s telescopes, looking out into the cosmos, must have detected something they shouldn’t have. The perceived threat got more serious when internet rumors spread that live webcams from a number of observatories all over the world had suddenly gone down as well. The FBI and the observatory’s management remained mum, as did employees and researchers associated with the site. Once the initial shock wore off, the reaction, from mainstream news outlets to far-out websites, could be distilled into the same basic questions:

What the hell just happened? And how worried should we be about it?

I was a reporter at the Alamogordo Daily News when the observatory shut down. Curious calls began coming into the newsroom shortly after the evacuation asking what we knew. Not long after the paper’s editor posted a preliminary story noting that the observatory was closed, I grabbed my camera and a notebook and headed out to try to find out what was going on. I followed the dusty roads from Alamogordo into the Sacramento Mountains, hung a right on State Road 6563 (a highway named after H-alpha, the brightest wavelength of hydrogen emission) just before the village of Cloudcroft, then traveled 18 more miles to the Sunspot Solar Observatory, which sits at almost 10,000 feet on a ridge that provides an incredible vista of the Tularosa Basin below. Though only around 36 miles by road, the journey from Alamogordo took more than an hour, due to the winding mountain roads.

The observatory is managed by AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which is maintained by New Mexico State University and financed in part by the National Science Foundation. The facility hosts researchers from different universities and institutions and is ordinarily open to the public on weekdays. Now, however, following the closure, the only sign of movement was a vehicle in the process of turning around to leave; a couple had driven up for the day to visit the grounds and hadn’t heard that it had been evacuated.

The only thing preventing anyone from entering was a single band of caution tape stretched between two pillars and wrapped around a temporary stop sign. An eerily quiet place even under normal circumstances, the observatory was absolutely silent. Even the birds seemed to have stopped chirping.

I sat in my car near the entrance, watching for any sign of movement. I considered walking into the facility, but visions of being swarmed by a team of gun-toting Men in Black prevented me from doing so. Forty-five minutes went by without a sign of another person or vehicle. So I decided to go to the other observatory on the same peak to see what the folks there had to say.

The Apache Point Observatory, which is operated by New Mexico State University and owned by the Astrophysical Research Consortium, is less than a mile from the Sunspot Observatory. Apache Point is similar to Sunspot in that it has a number of telescopes, as well as on-site living quarters, but when I got there, everything seemed to be business as usual. A scientist came out of one of the telescope buildings with an empty Tupperware container; she had just finished lunch. She said that they had been alerted to Sunspot’s closure but had been told that there was no danger to their facility and they could operate as normal. Beyond that, she didn’t know much.

Circling back to Sunspot, I saw that someone had parked a truck near the gate. It was the facility’s maintenance supervisor, who said that he was permitted inside only to make sure that vital infrastructure remained operational. He had no idea what was going on either.

My initial investigation yielded seemingly contradictory situations: one silent, abandoned facility and another seemingly unaffected. Sunspot was expressly off-limits, yet a maintenance worker was allowed to roam around inside.

The observatory is far enough removed from any nearby towns that I had no cellphone service, so I was unaware of just how quickly and relentlessly the closure had captured the internet’s imagination.

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Within a day or two there were hundreds of videos, articles and charts exploring various authors’ theories of choice, all elucidated with smug certainty and solemn authority. The explanations generally fell into the following camps:

  • Aliens: The observatory had found proof of extraterrestrial life, and this proof had been sequestered by the government before word could get out.
  • An incoming meteor: Some sort of deadly space debris was going to collide with Earth, and the government had squelched the news to prevent a panic.
  • Threatening space phenomenon: Unusual planetary alignments, changed orbits or bizarre solar radiation, any of which meant bad things for Earth.

Other miscellaneous theories postulated that the closure had kicked off the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy, that the observatory was somehow connected to HAARP (the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, a government research facility said to be able to control the weather), or even that the closure was some sort of viral marketing campaign by the observatory itself in order to attract more visitors.

More earthly conspiracy theorists chimed in with their explanations as well. The Dunn Telescope sits atop 10 tons of liquid mercury, so perhaps there was a mercury leak. New Mexico has a lot of militia activity, so perhaps some kind of sinister plot had been disrupted nearby. Only a few weeks before the observatory closure, authorities had raided a compound in rural New Mexico where ISIS-affiliates were training kidnapped children to carry out terrorist attacks and mass shootings. Or perhaps the recent (and unsolved) internet theft of a quarter-million dollars from Alamogordo’s city government was funding whatever was going on.

Perhaps most plausible was the notion that some kind of espionage was taking place. Sunspot has expansive views of Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range, both of which test experimental aircraft and weaponry. Theorists proposed that someone had been using the observatory’s equipment to spy on the bases or intercept transmissions. Internet sleuths pointed out that a Chinese student had been doing research at the observatory earlier that summer — could he be a spy?

Less maliciously, it was also proposed that the observatory had picked up on some top-secret government transmission and been closed to debrief researchers and scrub the facility of evidence.

Whatever the preferred explanation, the mystery was bolstered by posts about the webcams of other observatories as far-flung as the Canary Islands and Australia going down on the same day that Sunspot was evacuated, suggesting that other scientists had seen the same thing and were being silenced.

Numerous unauthorized people walked onto the site while it was closed. Clandestine footage of these excursions that was posted on YouTube — some by locals and some by people who had traveled from afar to investigate — revealed airborne drones and mysterious men walking around.

While all of these rumors and conspiracy theories were germinating, a week went by without any further official word about anything from anyone.

“Whatever it is, it has national security implications,” wrote one Reddit poster knowingly.

Meanwhile, the facility’s employees had their routines thrown out of whack. AURA put up employees who didn’t have relatives or friends to stay with in one of Cloudcroft’s hotels. Staff was paid for their time off, while many of the scientists were able to continue their work remotely with data they already had.

“I assured them from the very beginning that they were not going to lose out on getting paid,” Dr. McAteer, Sunspot’s director, told the Alamogordo Daily News.

Red Rock Security, a private company, was hired to watch over the facility, due to the increased traffic and numerous documented occurrences of YouTubers breaking in. Two security vehicles now blocked the entrance, with two guards out on foot in front of them. They and their cohorts took turns guarding the facility 24 hours a day and were allowed to roam the grounds but were not given any information about what prompted the evacuation in the first place.

Red Rock Security guarding the entrance to Sunspot Solar Observatory, September 2018. (Photo by Dylan Taylor-Lehman)

Red Rock agent Angel Escalante said that she had caught or turned away at least 35 people trying to enter the facility in the first two days she was there. She walked around the housing area, which looked like an imitation suburban street plunked down on a clearing in the mountain. Escalante pointed out that the YouTubers had broken some screens and done some other minor damage to the homes as they tried to look inside. She admitted that it would be difficult to ensure that nobody snuck in, given that the facility is surrounded by woods.

AURA finally released a statement on September 16 stating that the closure had to do with an investigation into a criminal matter. The statement said that AURA could not elaborate further, but some effort was being made to address some of the concerns directly. Dr. McAteer noted in a number of interviews, for example, that containing a mercury leak would have initiated an entirely different set of protocols. (Residents of Cloudcroft noted that they hadn’t seen any tanker trucks or hazmat vehicles come through town.) He also noted that anything Sunspot’s telescopes detected would have been observed by the thousands of other observatories around the world, and perhaps even noticed by amateur astronomers from their backyards. In short, shutting down Sunspot would have in no way prevented word of some imminent disaster from getting out.

The agency’s conduct continued to rankle Sheriff House, who colorfully voiced his disapproval in an interview with local television station KVIA.

“I think it’s chicken shit the way the FBI handled it. I have a responsibility to protect my citizens,” said House. “I think it’s paramount that we know what the threat is so we can provide safety.” (House is known for his indelicate statements, drawing some controversy in an unrelated incident for writing on Facebook that he would kill anyone who messed with his family.)

But Sherriff House’s umbrage marked the tail end of the paranoid excitement about the closure, as it was easy to see the holes in the theories once the initial shock wore off. More careful examination of the comments made by various theorists showed that their understanding of basic details about the observatory, the surrounding geography, and the scope of the observatory’s work were wildly incorrect.

A big deal was made of Sunspot’s businesses and post office being evacuated, for example, as if an entire town was ordered to leave, but in reality they were all part of the same small facility — the businesses were Sunspot’s visitor’s center and the post office was a room in a house on the site.

Red Rock agent Angel Escalante outside one of the empty Sunspot houses that used to be occupied by on-site researchers, September 2018. (Photo by Dylan Taylor-Lehman)

And the Sunspot houses were empty not because of the evacuation but because they had been unoccupied for decades. On-site researchers had become much less abundant over the past several years, and AURA had been winding down operations at Sunspot even further as a new telescope and headquarters were being built in Hawaii. Indeed, upon cursory inspection, houses at Sunspot were devoid of any furniture or belongings at all and smelled like mildew and decaying painted wood. (New Mexico State University recently took full control of the observatory, and the funding from the National Science Foundation will be redirected to the telescope in Hawaii.)

Furthermore, random helicopters weren’t uncommon in the area, given the nearby military bases. Sunspot was hours away from the Trinity Site, where the first atomic weapon was detonated, and even farther from Area 51 — two places that many conspiracy theorists said would certainly factor into anything weird going on at the observatory. Representatives from other observatories confirmed to me that the webcams that were supposedly off at the time of the closure had either not been operational for a while or simply weren’t in use that day.

If conspiracy buffs got all these details wrong, how trustworthy could the rest of their assertions be?

“It’s like a kid [forcing] a jigsaw puzzle together — yeah, you’re putting the pieces together, but you’re smashing them together,” said observatory maintenance chief Bruce Sagma in an interview with the Alamogordo Daily News.

In some cases, the zeal for conspiracy led to slapstick-like results. One video posted on YouTube contained drone footage of two mysterious men in black walking through the site. Another video featured a man pointing out that he was being recorded by government drones as he strolled through the facility. It turned out that the two YouTubers, each of whom was convinced of the gravity of what they uncovered, were filming each other.

And then, as suddenly as it had closed, a notice appeared on the facility’s webpage announcing that the observatory would reopen on the coming Monday. All told, it was closed for 11 days.

“In light of recent developments in the investigation, we have determined there is no risk to staff, and Sunspot Solar Observatory is transitioning back to regular operations as of September 17th,” the press release said.

Once the reopening was announced, so too was the surprising reason for the closure: The facility’s janitor was allegedly downloading child pornography on one of the observatory’s laptops.

The investigation had begun in late July. An IP address was flagged by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Internet Crimes Against Children Unit for sharing 300 files of child pornography through a peer-to-peer network. The IP address was traced to its source, which was a block of IP addresses exclusive to Sunspot, and then to a specific office within the observatory.

Not long afterward, an observatory employee found a laptop running in a rarely used office. There was an image of a naked woman on the screen, but when the employee pressed a key on the keyboard, the image faded into a sexual image of a child. On August 10, the FBI began its own investigation into the incident.

The computer was initially thought to be that of a student, but as no students had been at the facility for at least 10 days, there were only a few people who could have accessed the locked office. A process of elimination revealed that the only possible culprit was a 30-year-old janitor whose parents’ company had the cleaning contract for both observatories on the ridge. The authorities’ suspicions were seemingly confirmed when a lack of activity on the IP address was found to correspond to the suspect being out of town for a wedding. On August 21, two weeks before the shutdown, the FBI photographed the office and seized the computer.

The next day, a researcher observed the janitor exiting the office the computer had been taken from. The janitor was clearly agitated, and he became more so as the day wore on. According to the FBI’s search warrant application, he complained about the lax security and unchanged lock codes, claimed that someone had stolen five rolls of toilet paper, and then said he’d seen someone waiting in a truck in the parking lot late at night.

As the janitor’s nerves began to fray further, he said that not only was he concerned about the security breach but he was also worried that there was a serial killer on the loose in the area. It was only a matter of time before the killer struck at the facility, he said. These bizarre assertions were vague but worrisome, and the facility was closed because the suspect “potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents.” And that was apparently it: The facility had been evacuated for a week and a half because a janitor had allegedly used one of the computers to download child porn. Aside from a press release and a few cursory comments by observatory staff, little more was said about the resolution to the mysterious closure.

“We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some,” the observatory’s press release stated. “However, our desire to provide additional information had to be balanced against the risk that, if spread at the time, the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation.”

Though the anticipated swarm of press and curiosity-seekers was not present when the facility reopened, the phone in the visitor’s center was ringing off the hook all morning with follow-up inquiries. Sunspot’s education and public outreach coordinator Heidi Sanchez said that she had been following the conspiracy theories online and that each employee had his or her own personal favorite explanation, though the employees were overall hesitant to comment on the actual reason for the closure. It was clearly a difficult and embarrassing thing to have had happen, and all the more so for those who were on friendly terms with the man accused of accessing the heinous images.

They were simply looking forward to getting back to their work, Sanchez said.

For most, the revelation of what had caused the shutdown was a bit anticlimactic. But for those prone to conspiracy theorizing, the story about the janitor was just a good smokescreen. What better way to get people off the trail of what was really going on than to say it was a crime that everyone could agree was really bad? A new batch of videos popped up online following the announcement, this time trying to sort through the closure and offering characteristically weird analyses of what it all meant, from a pedophile ring at the observatory to evidence of the imminent Christian rapture to an upcoming coronal mass ejection — a blast of magnetic energy from the Sun with the capacity to seriously disrupt the Earth’s electronic grids (a type of event that has verifiably affected the Earth before).

Leaving those far-fetched theories aside, the situation does remain a bit suspicious. While the man in question was fired and his family’s cleaning contract was not renewed, he has not been charged with a crime or even arrested. A source who asked not to be identified said that an investigation is still underway, though as of this writing, there are no records in the New Mexico court system relating to the janitor, aside from a speeding ticket issued years earlier. The staff of the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office confirmed that the individual had not been through the court system; ditto for the Otero County District Court. A Freedom of Information Act request for all FBI documentation related to the Sunspot raid and closure was answered with a form letter that said no such documents existed. The FBI has not spoken about the case at all in the media, and messages left with the FBI’s Albuquerque office and directly with the agent who applied for the search warrant went unreturned. The family of the accused janitor is in a difficult position now as well. Their son’s name was broadcasted around the world in conjunction with an irredeemable crime, and while it’s not illegal or even unusual to divulge a suspect’s name before he’s been charged, it was somewhat ethically questionable. The family now has to deal with its own internal difficulties while shouldering the ignominy of such an offense in their small town. The family declined to speak on the record about the charges, but they did give me the following statement via written correspondence:

“The FBI was and has been ‘Very Professional’ in its ongoing investigation of the family. In regards to AURA and NSO’s handling of matters, they proved to be ‘unprofessional’ in the opinion of the family. The family has no further comments at this time.” (The National Solar Observatory, or NSO, was an organization that formerly oversaw some aspects of the facility’s operations.)

The atmosphere at the Sunspot Solar Observatory is a bit more buoyant a year after the closure, with its researchers happy to be back to work and sharing their discoveries with the public. Observatory director Dr. James McAteer does acknowledge the closure’s positive impact on the facility, as it drew more attention to Sunspot’s telescopes. Visitor numbers are up, and the attention the observatory received for nonscience reasons made the researchers redouble its scientific mission.

Aerial view of the Sunspot Solar Observatory site. (Photo, and header photo, by Paul Martinez)

A recent collaboration with NASA’s Parker Solar Probe studied the surface and atmosphere of the Sun and helped confirm theoretical but heretofore unproven hypotheses about our closest star. More researchers are coming to Sunspot to do research for more nuanced projects that might not have been able to get funded without the preliminary work done at Sunspot. As is the case with any research they do, the information they’ve uncovered is promptly placed online and made available for anyone to use, McAteer said.

“[The closure] really refocused us on making sure we hone in on those things that really needed to be done and really focus on plowing through with our plans and getting it to the stage where we can attract enough people to the project that we can give it energy going forward,” McAteer said. “[We’re focused on] getting the data, making sure the data’s available in the shortest amount of time, making sure it’s the highest quality it can be when it comes out.”

A year after the closure, the public’s alien fixation has largely moved on to instances of Navy pilots reporting otherworldly craft, the Pentagon admitting it studies UFOs, and the recent meme-inspired plan for millions of people to storm Area 51. Sunspot’s researchers can continue their work in relative quiet, at least until charges are officially brought against the janitor (or the case is dropped). Recently, the public’s primary interest in Sunspot has been the observatory’s family-friendly activities and nighttime astronomy lessons, and McAteer is happy with that.

“The place was just heaving with people,” he said of a recent event. “It was a really great atmosphere.”

Of course, in the dark reaches of the internet, the search for the truth goes on. There isn’t a definitive answer, but fervent observers agree it is likely something sinister.

“The government has us where it wants us, guys,” said one YouTuber, while another added: “That is not our sun. It is a damn simulator that gets wider [and] brighter and closer everyday.”