Thoughts about the Sunspot Observatory Closure

From 1995 until 2001, I worked on New Mexico State University’s 1-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory. The observatory is about one mile down highway 6563 from the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The highway gets its number because the hydrogen-alpha spectral line which is important to solar astronomy is at 6563 angstroms. Here’s a look at Apache Point. The 1-meter enclosure is in the foreground with the 3.5-meter telescope in the background.

Occasionally, when I worked at Apache Point, I would make the hike down the road to get lunch at Sunspot’s on-site cafeteria. Sunspot recently made news because of it was suddenly closed and vacated on September 7. It just reopened at the beginning of this week on September 17.

Sunspot Solar Observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the same organization that manages Kitt Peak National Observatory where I currently work. Because of all these connections, it’s not surprising that I received a lot of questions about what was happening at Sunspot.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t know much beyond what I’ve read in the news. It’s been 17 years since I’ve been to Sunspot and although Kitt Peak and Sunspot are administered by the same top level board, different companies actually run the observatories at a day-to-day level. Kitt Peak is run by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and Sunspot is run by the Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium, a group managed out of New Mexico State University.

The sudden closure created rampant speculation ranging from lost military secrets to Bigfoot to the observatory harboring a UFO. To be honest, I’m not quite certain how a remote solar observatory with a staff of nine would capture a UFO, but it sounds like it could make a fun short story. Just to demonstrate how even a hint of something can run away from people, when I mentioned the possibility of writing a short story on Facebook, it eventually came back around to me that I’m hard at work on a novel about this subject. That’s quite an upgrade!

As I understand, the reason for the sudden closure had to do with an on-going law enforcement investigation at the site. Apparently because there was concern that a suspect in the investigation might pose a threat to the people at Sunspot, the decision was taken to vacate the nine employees and close the facility. According to various media outlets later in the week, it was discovered that a janitor at the site was downloading child pornography and had made veiled threats against the management and fellow staff.

In fact, the “mundane” explanation of a criminal investigation makes a lot of sense to me. Over the years, I’ve heard numerous tales of various people at observatories all over getting up to no good. Perhaps the most infamous story has to do with a disgruntled employee firing a handgun at the primary mirror of the 107-inch telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas back in 1970. The mirror survived the assault and, in fact, is still in use. The bullet holes have simply been painted black to avoid scattering light. I have known people at observatories who have threatened violence and even become violent. I’m glad to see a facility such as Sunspot take actions to avoid a more tragic outcome to a bad situation.

It’s stories like this and stories of real-world border crime that influenced one aspect of the conflict in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. That said, one of the criminals does allow himself to get carried away by the notion that there might be aliens or even a monster laboratory at the observatory. The irony is that it isn’t the astronomers who are creating the monster they encounter, but other dark forces at work around the observatory, including some aided by a disgruntled former employee.

My observatory in The Astronomer’s Crypt is entirely fictional. However it is set in the same mountains as the real Sunspot Solar Observatory. The one thing that struck me was how much the real world observatory closure reminded me of what the aftermath of my novel’s events would look like. That said, the observatory of my novel would not be opening just ten days after the incident was resolved. To find out why, you’d just have to read it. To do that, visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html and find out where to order your copy.

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6 comments on “Thoughts about the Sunspot Observatory Closure

  1. I find some janitor looking at “Kiddie Porn” a less likely excuse than a weather balloon. There’s something the government doesn’t want us to see.

    • I see two problems with this assertion. First off, Sunspot isn’t run by “the government.” AURA is a private corporation. As I understand, the only government agency involved, the FBI, didn’t advise them one way or the other about closure. Second, this incident is in the news at the same time that there have just been three workplace shootings in under 24 hours. It’s all too rare in corporate America for companies to take threats seriously. I think a company like AURA should be applauded for taking actions to keep employees safe. Keep in mind, they didn’t close the site because he was downloading pornography. They closed the site because his remarks were interpreted as a threat of violence.

  2. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    David suggests that you read his book. Allow me to second that recommendation with extra sauce! You see a lot of authors whose whole website just says “Buy my book!” Having bought the book in question and read it alone in the dark, I cannot recommend it highly enough! Horror fans who take the plunge will be amazed. People talk about how they can’t find a good indie. Well, here’s one. $4.99 on Kindle. Worth the read on its own merits, and also to discover a prolific author who weaves science into his tales. Still here? Why? Go get this book!

  3. I guess what came to my mind was a closure due to someone wanting to interfere with the research being conducted at the observatory. The current administration is so anti-science. So I was relieved that it was a mundane criminal matter rather than an anti-science “raid.”

    • That’s an interesting angle on what happened. Solar science actually does play a vital role in national security — everything from radar to communications with troops, planes, and ships. In fact, the Air Force maintains its own network of solar observatories for the express purpose of monitoring solar activity that impacts these things. It’s all too easy to imagine the current administration taking action against some news it didn’t like.

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