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Statement on Status of Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico

Press Release From: Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy
Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2018

On September 7th the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) made the decision to temporarily vacate the Sunspot Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico, as a precautionary measure while addressing a security issue. The facility closed down in an orderly fashion and is now re-opening. The residents that vacated their homes will be returning to the site, and all employees will return to work this week.

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.

About Sunspot Solar Observatory

Since late 2017, the Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium has run the Sunspot Visitors Center as well as daily research activities for the solar community with the Dunn Solar Telescope, in collaboration with The National Solar Observatory (NSO, http://www.nso.edu). AURA, through NSO, continues to manage the site. There are approximately nine New Mexico State University and AURA staff employed at the observatory.

Sunspot Solar Observatory was established on Sacramento Peak in 1947, and is based in Sunspot, NM, in the United States. Sunspot is an unincorporated community in the Sacramento Mountains in Otero County. Named after the nearby solar observatory, Sunspot is located within the Lincoln National Forest, 18 miles south of Cloudcroft, at an elevation of 9,200 feet (2,800 meters).

NSO operated the Dunn Solar Telescope at the observatory from 1969 to 2017, managed by AURA under an agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Beginning in 2016, the New Mexico State University initiated a drive funded by NSF to upgrade and update the Sunspot facility, through a newly-formed Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium. All observational data is sent to New Mexico State University servers and research from the data is performed nationwide.

The National Solar Observatory (NSO) is the national center for ground-based solar physics in the United States and is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation Division of Astronomical Sciences.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science. NSF supports basic research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future.

Contact:
Shari Lifson
AURA Corporate Communications Coordinator
Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy
+1 (202) 769-5232
slifson@aura-astronomy.org

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a consortium of 46 US institutions and 4 international affiliates that operates world-class astronomical observatories. AURA’s role is to establish, nurture, and promote public observatories and facilities that advance innovative astronomical research. In addition, AURA is deeply committed to public and educational outreach, and to diversity throughout the astronomical and scientific workforce. AURA carries out its role through its astronomical facilities.

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