UPDATE 9/12/18 4PM PST The issue may be related to Mercury (the metal, not the planet). On a tip from a science journalist friend who covers telescopes and who has been there, I verified the observatory uses a vat of liquid mercury as a float bearing for the giant solar telescope. According to an internal NSO/NMSU document, that bearing is “high-risk” during maintenance. If there was a major mercury spill, it might explain why the Feds are there, with FBI providing security. The amount of Mercury is said to be in the “tens of gallons” range, which is next to impossible to come by in the commercial market these days, and if it were weaponized, it would make a very nasty dirty bomb. Perhaps there’s some security issue with the mercury on-site.
Also, the observatory is in transition, with it’s management shifting to New Mexico State University:
As part of the restructuring connected to the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKI), the National Solar Observatory (NSO) will leave the Sunspot site in October 2017. However NSF, NSO, and the larger solar physics community in USA see extended scientific, educational, instrumentation and public outreach advantages in maintaining, simplifying, and upgrading, certain aspects of the telescope and the site of Sunspot. As such, the New Mexico State University (NMSU) are leading a national effort to form and lead a Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium (SSOC) to maintain the operations of the Dunn Solar Telescope (DST) and Sunspot site for a minimum 5 year span beyond Oct 2017.
Maybe there’s been an issue during the transition.. – Anthony
Solar telescope facility, and nearby U.S. Post Office shut down – Blackhawk helicopters seen on site
The mission of the National Solar Observatory is to advance knowledge of the Sun, both as an astronomical object and as the dominant external influence on Earth, by providing forefront observational opportunities to the research community. The mission includes the operation of cutting edge facilities, the continued development of advanced instrumentation both in-house and through partnerships, conducting solar research, and educational and public outreach.
It’s been closed by the FBI for “security reasons” and there’s no mention of the closure on the NSO website. Not even in their news feed. Even local authorities are baffled. What could possibly be going on there that would require such a secretive response by the FBI? Some sort of suspicious package at the post office? Spies? Something they spotted with the telescope that it too explosive for the public to know about?
From a variety of wire and TV news sources. h/t to Dennis Wingo
The mysterious and sudden closure of the National Solar Observatory in New Mexico is sending alien hunters into a frenzy as the facility remains shut without explanation. The research institute in Sunspot was evacuated last Thursday along with a nearby United States Postal Service office for unexplained ‘security reasons.’
A spokesperson for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) which manages the observatory said the evacuation was a precautionary measure due to a security issue. “It was our decision to evacuate the facility,”spokeswoman Shari Lifson added.
A statement made by the Otero County Sheriff, Benny House, to Alamogordo Daily News in the aftermath of the announcement has contributed to intense speculation around the incident, however. House said that they were asked to standby but given no further information.
“The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on. We’ve got people up there (at Sunspot) that requested us to standby 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 sheriff also claimed there was a Blackhawk helicopter at the site and work crews on towers and around antennas
From KVIA-TV :
SUNSPOT, New Mexico – The National Solar Observatory in Sunspot New Mexico has been closed since last Thursday.
The post office near Sunspot also remains closed. Its employees have been temporarily transferred to the post office in Cloudcroft, a USPS official told ABC-7.
ABC-7 has confirmed the post office in Sunspot will not be re-opened until further notice, and cannot be re-opened until approved by local law enforcement officials.
ABC-7 Monday spoke with Shari Lifson, who is with Aura, the company that co-manages the Observatory with NMSU. Lifson told ABC 7 there is no time-table for the Observatory to be re-opened.
ABC-7 also reached out the FBI, but did not hear back from the federal agency in time for deadline. The FBI did speak with local law enforcement about the length of the observatory closure.
“They spoke with my sergeant initially and they said that they would be down for a few days so that could be anywhere from a few days to months, from my past experience,” said Sheriff Benny House.
The FBI did not tell Sheriff House the reason for the closure.
Sheriff Benny House did tell ABC 7 that his local law enforcement did not have anything to do with either the observatory closure, or the Sunspot post office Closure.
A spokesperson for the United States Postal Service told ABC 7 that they were given specific instructions. “We were told on September 6th that we would be evacuated along with the surrounding area, we were not told why,” Rod Sturgeon said, “We were told just to be out of the area.”
UPDATE: A few minutes after publication, the photo was corrected to show the Dunn Solar Telescope at the Sacramento Peak NSO facility.