Ever since the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot in the US state of New Mexico was evacuated and visited by the FBI on 6 September, the organisation that runs the facility has been mum on the “security threat” that led to the closure.
The relative silence on the part of Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) has led to wild speculation and theories about what the organisation could be hiding—including proof of alien life, military testing, and evidence than an asteroid is heading toward Earth.
Now AURA has finally shed some light on the mystery. Shari Lifson, a spokesperson for AURA, released a statement Sunday night:
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. For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location.
The statement explains that AURA decided to evacuate the area because of “logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat.”
AURA has decided to re-open the facility and allow residents and staff to return to the area today.
The statement did not provide any further information on the “criminal activity,” but said, “recent developments in the investigation” led AURA to decide the staff is not at risk.
Lifson acknowledged the “lack of communications” surrounding the closure was alarming. “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,” Lifson stated.
The observatory probably won’t be conducting scientific businesses as usual this week. Because of all the national attention from the closure, AURA is expecting a high volume of visitors. Subsequently, the organisation has brought in a security service to assist with operations.