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AURA, the university consortium that operates the closed Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico, issued a statement today about that closure.
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 decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat. AURA determined that moving the small number of on-site staff and residents off the mountain was the most prudent and effective action to ensure their safety.
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. Given the significant amount of publicity the temporary closure has generated, and the consequent expectation of an unusual number of visitors to the site, we are temporarily engaging a security service while the facility returns to a normal working environment.
We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some. 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. That was a risk we could not take.
This news release, while still very vague about the criminal investigation, implies that there was a dangerous criminal suspect on the mountain that federal officials were pursuing, and they evacuated to protect their employees.
This explanation still leaves serious questions. Why for example were local police kept in the dark about this investigation? It makes no sense not to include them, unless they might be a target of the investigation, something that in this case does not appear to be true.
Also, if there was a criminal on the mountain, secrecy is not really an effective way to catch him. It might make sense, but they have not provided us any information that would explain this.