September 6th marked an unprecedented incident at the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in New Mexico. With its remote, mountainous location it wouldn’t look out of place in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Its website outlines the observatory’s mission as 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.”
So far, so dry. Yet over the past weeks something unfolded there that caused feverish speculation, particularly among those who believe the U.S. government is hiding details of alien threats from above. The institution’s Sunspot facility was abruptly evacuated, and the local Otero police summoned by a higher power to oversee the move.
County Sheriff Benny House was interviewed by BuzzFeed News, revealing that “Nobody… is giving us details as to what is going on. The FBI was there, but for what purpose we don’t know,” he said. “They were gone when we got there and we reached out to them and they didn’t tell us anything.”
AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, was the body responsible for the decision. Their spokesperson said the reason behind the evacuation was “a security issue.”
If journalists were hoping for some clarity from former NSO employees, they were left disappointed. BuzzFeed quotes data scientist John Varsik, who told them “Nothing like this has ever happened before [at an observatory]… We’ve been sitting around trying to guess what kind of security issue they would be worried about.”
This combination of an FBI swarm, virtually no detail, and clueless participants naturally led to accusations of an X Files-style cover up. From invading ETs to dangerous solar flares, the internet — as ever — was rife with conspiracy theories.
The truth is out there. And indeed it was found, a mere 11 days later. Ironically for such a intrigue-laden subject, the facts were established thanks to FBI records, unsealed by the Bureau themselves. What it uncovered was activity of a depressingly Earthbound variety.
Reuters reported the cause being part of an “FBI investigation of a janitor suspected of using the facility’s wireless internet service to send and receive child pornography.”
With this information in the public domain, AURA were then free to tell their side of the story, explaining that “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. That was a risk we could not take.”
So while there were no galactic peril, at least enthusiasts would know the radio silence was all in a good cause.
Along the way there were indications the case wasn’t going to turn out as juicy as hoped. While a Black Hawk helicopter was sighted by police on arrival, a reasonable explanation was the Air Force base close to the Sunspot facility.
John Varsik highlighted the unprecedented nature of the incident, but stopped short of attributing it to anything beyond our world. He reminded BuzzFeed readers that the NSO “organization has been undergoing a big change and is building a new observatory in Hawaii,” in his words “’phasing the old ones out… Over the last decade, they have been gradually winding things down.’”
Budgetary restraints could plausibly have been behind the dramatic move, day to day mundanity raining on the pundit’s parade once again.
The facility reopened on the 17th, making this concentrated period of media interest a fleeting one. Otero police no doubt still watch the skies, but probably to judge the weather more than look for signs of extraterrestrial conquest.