Not far from the test site of the first atomic bomb, high in the mountains above the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, sits Sunspot Observatory. For around 70 years, its telescopes have stared right at the Sun. Normally, that happens without much fanfare. But last week, Sunspot made international news when residents were evacuated—for a week and a half—in response to an undisclosed security threat.
Officials refused to release details. Now, those details are out: An affidavit, unsealed last week, revealed that the FBI was investigating child pornography linked to an IP address in Sunspot, and a suspect seemed threatening. The investigation is ongoing and no one has been charged. That information is disturbing, along with the secrecy surrounding the evacuation.
The FBI had shown up, while the local sheriff didn’t know what was happening. The internet went wild with conspiracy theories—from the usual “aliens!” to the less absurd “spies.” Residents of nearby, unevacuated Cloudcroft, a town of 700, fielded questions and transactions from curious seekers and reporters (hello), determined to decipher the situation.
On the way into town the night of September 13, I stopped at Cloudcroft’s gas station to buy some firewood. The attendant called to me before I walked out the door. “Watch out for deer and elk,” he said. “If it’s dark out there, it’s dangerous.”
The next morning, I set off on a public trail to Sunspot, which sits on Forest Service land. It was just a couple of miles, through forest with greener ground cover than most people give New Mexico credit for, and soon I emerged onto the observatory’s heliport. A little farther on, the cone of the Dunn Solar Telescope poked through the trees. It’s shaped like a beam a kid might draw shining from a crayon Sun, sticking 136 feet above the ground but extending 221 feet below it, containing around 10 tons of toxic mercury.
The trail ran right into the town itself. There was no sign saying “Don’t come in,” and no tape—as there was across the front entrance—forbidding entry. And so I walked onto a road called Coronal Loop, named after the arcs that rise and fall from the Sun as plasma slides along magnetic field lines. From the pavement, I could see the flagship scope, of course, along with historic heliophysics instruments arrayed in an arc on the same hilltop, their more classical observatory domes closed. Farther below were old labs and blocks of blocky houses.
It’s a self-contained science town, the way remote observatories sometimes are: Astronomy has to be done far from humans, and high above the confounding air of the lower elevations. So astronomers build little enclaves for themselves, surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. Sunspot looked like a ghost town, the archaeological remnants of some great enterprise now gone. Yet the truth is that it was kind of a ghost town before the evacuation.
A few years ago, the National Solar Observatory decided to move its headquarters to Boulder, Colorado, as part of a shift toward newer telescopes. Not long after, a review recommended that the National Science Foundation divest the Sunspot facility. The thriving, tight-knit town shrank into a barely populated, bare-bones operation. Underneath that, a sinister crime may have gone down in secret.
Under the shadow of the ongoing investigation and the federal divestment, Sunspot's observatory will keep running for now, with science leadership transitioning to a private consortium rather than a federal arm. But the town will probably never be what it was.
You can find such stories of lonely astronomical infrastructure across the US. Sometimes the money for their operation dries up. Sometimes people don’t need to keep a telescope company anymore, because it mostly runs itself. The romantic idea of the astronomer, eye at the eyepiece, in a city on a hill, is pure nostalgia—and in places like Sunspot, sometimes the small town that surrounded that astronomer is too.
Jackie Diehl, though, remembers Sunspot’s heyday well, and fondly. She spent 15 years there from 2002 to 2017, and she became a fixture of the community. Diehl ended up, she says, serving as the mayor of a place without a mayor.
For much of her time there, the town had 65 or 70 residents (employees at the site and at nearby Apache Point Observatory), plus the interns and grad-student fellows who descended upon the town in the summer. But it was actually pretty cosmopolitan, with scientific staff from all over the world. Monthly potlucks were themed to the cuisines of different countries, often those from which the residents hailed. Volleyball games bounced around thrice a week. Card games came on the regular. “It was a work site. We were all very serious about our jobs,” she adds. “But by gosh, we would have a great time.”
The town came together, though, not just for fun. Residents were volunteer firefighters; they cleaned up the 18-mile stretch of highway between the observatory and Cloudcroft. When Diehl had a breast cancer scare, she wasn’t sure how she’d make it from Sunspot to chemotherapy on the winding, wintry roads. “As a single person, the first thing that came to my mind was ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’” she recalls. “The women took me aside, and said ‘Look, if this is the case, you don’t need to worry. We’re going to get you back and forth.’” The scare stayed a scare, but when other women were diagnosed, the same commitment stayed true.
Diehl became close, in particular, to a group of other Sunspot singles. One of those was John Barentine, a former telescope operator at Apache Point and current director of public policy at the International Dark Sky Association. Barentine lived in Sunspot for five years in the early 2000s. Diehl, he says, was their “den mother.”
Life in Sunspot was sometimes difficult for the young Barentine—isolating, especially since he often worked the night shift. But he loved the work (he learned more running telescopes, he notes, than he had in graduate school) and the strange nature of the community. “We used to joke that, other than maybe Los Alamos, there were maybe more PhDs in Sunspot than anywhere on Earth,” says Barentine. Perched solo on mountaintops, observatories are a little like medieval monasteries: “These were isolated, cloistered communities. They were 100 percent devoted to what they did.” The implication being, of course, that so are the astronomers concentrated in Sunspot.
Around 2012, things started to change. For one, the National Solar Observatory was ramping up its work on a fancy new telescope in Hawaii and wanted to ramp down work at older telescopes, and it decided to move the headquarters to Colorado and took many workers with it. The National Science Foundation determined that it could not continue to run all its existing facilities, support new projects, and provide project money to scientists with budgets the way they were. The foundation eventually decided to pull back from a number of its commitments—including the National Solar Observatory site at Sunspot.
In what Diehl calls “bursts,” staff began to move to the new National Solar Observatory headquarters in Boulder, from where they would run the future megaproject—the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii. “It wasn’t so bad at first,” says Diehl. “But the more people that moved, the dynamics of the observatory changed.”
Rather than reapplying for her job (which she’d have had to do) and moving to Colorado, Diehl resigned and moved down to Alamogordo, where she now works in the school system. She didn’t move all at once, and one day when she returned to pack up her remaining belongings, someone had stolen a TV, speakers, and a gaming system.
That wouldn’t have happened before, she says. When the place was crowded, “you never really worried about security issues.”
Sunspot Solar Observatory has just nine people working onsite these days. It continues, for the time being, to do astronomy thanks to something of a rescuing proposal from New Mexico State University. The university believed it could get good solar science out of the instruments, and gathered a consortium to take over. There were some hiring delays and questions about whether the money would come through, making for a slightly difficult transition—but, at least until this criminal investigation, things were looking up.
James McAteer, head of the consortium and a solar physicist at New Mexico State, is excited to use the telescope daily. The team will watch solar filaments, the curves of plasma that often arc over sunspots. They’ll stare down active regions that might soon spit out solar flares. They could monitor the center of the Sun’s disk, or do deep studies of the magnetic fields at its poles.
McAteer and the Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium expect to run the site's science and outreach till at least 2021 (although currently the team is working under a shorter transitional award. “We don’t plan on stopping then,” says McAteer. “We’ll see what we can do to reinvent it again.”
This kind of private coup has become commonplace in astronomy. With the spate of recent divestitures, the NSF has helped observatories find partners—like the New Mexico State collaboration—to fuel them. The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, once the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, is now run by the University of Central Florida. Green Bank Observatory, once part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, became its own entity. Caltech and NASA have pitched in at Kitt Peak in Arizona.
The reason for the coups—trouble—is also a trend, federally and for universities. UC’s Lick Observatory, looming over San Jose, has previously found itself in peril. The University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, flanked by ornate pillars and gargoyles, will cease astronomical operations on October 1. As of a few years ago, Mount Wilson Observatory was pretty unpopulated.
No matter what scientific strategy the US employed for its facilities, all telescopes cannot exist forever, nor should they. But the strategy it is employing—focusing on a small set of ride-or-die megaprojects—might be dicey. What if Congress doesn’t fund one, or defunds one during construction? That saying about eggs in baskets exists for a reason.
Plus, scaling down means fewer people get direct experience building and using hardware. And, from such sophisticated scopes, astronomers often get prêt-à-manger data, delivered to their inboxes. “They’re observational astronomers, and some of them have never been to an observatory,” says Barentine.
Lots of sunstronomers, though, have been to this observatory. “Somewhere along the way, if you are in solar physics, Sunspot touched your career,” declares Diehl.
Standing on the hill, next to the Dunn telescope and its mercury, I knew nothing of what the “security threat” would turn out to be. But like any abandoned area, the air was suffused with a sense of the sinister, of something bad waiting to happen, or something bad that already had.
I could see in the buildings’ shadows the bustling monastery they used to make up. Surely, back then, bad things also went on behind the scenes, between people, behind curtains. Small group dynamics, if nothing else, are a bitch.
It wasn’t all “lend you a cup of sugar” and neighborhood watch. Still, there was a lot of that. “It was just this quiet, serene place that was such a world away from what most people experience, especially people who live in cities,” says Barentine. “And I’m sorry to see that it’s gone.”
The town itself isn’t gone, to be sure—just the town Barentine knew. Someday, though, it could actually disappear. Assuming New Mexico State gets a contract that goes till 2021, the site’s ultimate future may still be in flux. The National Science Foundation presented four potential ending options, and their impacts, earlier this year. Alternative Four is “demolition and site restoration.”
“There one day might not be anything to see,” adds Barentine. “It might literally all be gone. You wouldn’t know that anything had ever happened there."
When scientists turn telescopes to space, they see the past. Even the light that arrives from the Sun shows how it was eight and a half minutes ago. No matter what Sunspot becomes, when astronomers turn their minds toward that peak, more than a few of them will still see it the way it used to be.