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FBI Mysteriously Closes New Mexico Observatory (popularmechanics.com)
178 points by creaghpatr 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 121 comments

Apparently it has “excellent views of Holloman AFB and White Sands Missile Range” (https://reddit.com/r/SpecialAccess/comments/9f91sm/_/e5uy1fd...) . Further down, someone says that someone claims that the Chinese were using the antenna array at the observatory to spy on missile tests at WSMR.

If the place was truly low on staff then this theory may not be so far fetched.

The national RCS test facility is at Holloman, all kinds of interesting test pilot units out there as per the public website.

If you pull the list of current NOTAMs for Holloman, normally the tower is part time but is open continuous from 10-sept to 14-sept. Must be busy. As per the NOTAMs they are also doing a lot of construction work at Holloman, heavy construction vehicles all over and wingspan limitations to avoid hitting them.

My guess is the somewhat abandoned research facility will come off lockdown after the 14th.

My understanding of the research facility is its in transition and likely unsecured; once its secured to some minimal level, law enforcement will ignore it when they're doing something "interesting" at Holloman.

Or, when whatever test equipment they're installing at Holloman is covered by an opaque radome, they'll reopen the research facility.

What do RCS and NOTAM stand for? Also, is there a link where you can, as you say, "pull" this data, or is that from a non-public system? Thanks.

RCS = Radar Cross Section, so they are measuring how a plane appears on radar in various scenarios.

NOTAM = Notice to Airmen, info bulletins about all kinds of things relevant to air traffic (from "this area is off limits temporarily" over "this airport has a broken navigation beacon" to "there's a festival here that's allowed to point lasers at the sky")

EDIT: In the US can be fetched from https://pilotweb.nas.faa.gov/PilotWeb/ – Location HMN is Holloman AFB

You'll note that NOTAMs and also METARs (weather reports) are written in a very terse, heavily abbreviated syntax that seems to originate from teletype/telegraph days.

Another good google term is OSINT open source intelligence.

One source says they've got THE number one national secret radar lab, what could be hurt by making that public? Another source admits the place is brimming over with test pilots. Another source says they're doing a massive heavy construction project. Another source says this is a period of high optempo for flying despite heavy construction limiting runway operations. A great place to observe the AFB, such as a semi-abandoned observatory, is under temporary lockdown.

Note they're only locking down a great place to park a van full of radio observing gear, not locking down every little hiking trail where you can optically observe the base. Almost as if the AF base were a national secret radar lab; oh wait, it is, per their own public website and historical events.

Individually nothing above is classified or "intel worthy" but in combination if it isn't a week long systems integration test for some kind of anti-aircraft radar experiment, they've gone to great lengths to make it appear in public to be so. And that's the whole OSINT thing in a nutshell.

Comically, if they're not doing this kind of activity, you have to ask why not, since that kind of activity is why that publicly known national radar lab exists in the first place. I mean, if they're not doing what they're funded to do, that in itself is some kind of conspiracy theory.

I suppose the whole thing could be a psyop to determine conspiracy theory susceptibility; have a known, public, radar lab, do radar lab things, and see who freaks out is a valid psyop experiment. Personally I think the HAARP project of the 90s was more of a psyop troll along the lines of the above, than an actual scientific study OR an actual conspiracy theory. Some scientific research did happen, but mostly I think they just wanted to F with Art Bell listeners and see how they respond.

Of course, OSINT can be a diversion up to and including faking the whole thing by releasing a small number of cheap and easy irrelevant press releases and seeing which vans full of electronics equipment driven by foreign nationals sit in parking lots in sight of the base; its entirely possible literally nothing is going on inside the base, its all a counter-intel operation. A honeypot operation. Maybe some foreigner took the bait and drove up to the observatory surrounded by FBI agents with a van full of monitoring equipment, that would be an epic troll of a foreign intel agency, usually they keep that kind of thing quiet and we'll never hear. Possibly locking the place down and closing the post office and getting news coverage including here is a component of the counter-intel honeypot operation, LOL.

OSINT is more of a method of analyzing seemingly unrelated data, than proving any hypothesis. But the OSINT synthesis of the situation boils down to "a known military radar lab appears to be extremely busy doing radar stuff this week".

I'm skeptical of that theory. Sunspot is up in the Lincoln National Forest. There are multiple trails and locations that have a great view of White Sands and Holloman AFB, which are located in the basin below. There isn't anything special about the view from Sunspot that I can recall.

Other than a big telescope great for looking at things far away?

I used to work in astrophysics. Telescope operators are expected not to look in certain places. Those were fun conversations.

My guess is they found a spy.

What kinds of places were you told not to look? (I'm guessing you couldn't physically point it at targets on the ground, so I assume certain sections of the sky.) Who was it that was commanding you not to look?

I work adjacent to some satellites that do visual-spectrum imaging of the earth, and even we fall under these regulations.

In addition to all the NOAA licensing for imaging the ground, you need extra licenses for taking pictures of space. (it's useful, for example, to image the moon as a way of calibrating cameras & telescopes without atmospheric interference, and tracking stars is one of the most reliable ways to determine spacecraft attitude)

One of the requirements is that if we take a picture of space and there's anything moving in the picture (presumably a near-earth satellite), we delete all copies of the picture and forget we ever took it, but only after offering it for sale to the Air Force at a commercially reasonable price.

I'm sure there are additional layers on top of it, that's just the facets of it that I've been exposed to in the mandatory company-wide regulatory training.

> but only after offering it for sale to the Air Force at a commercially reasonable price.

That sounds like a business model - what is a commercially reasonable price, and where do I sign up?

> That sounds like a business model

Does it? You have one potential customer, and you have to create product on spec, offer it to them at a price you don't control, and destroy the unsold material whether or not the one customer pays for a copy.

Building a viable business model around that without corrupt influence over the single buyer seems impractical.

Sure, the US has considerable leverage over the sorts of things people are allowed to launch into space, but I have a hard time believing it could maintain a similar degree of control over ground-based telescopes.

I won't elaborate. A neat book just came out though : Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military https://g.co/kgs/XdRZFu

Thanks for the link. I haven't seen the book, but I know when I took a computational physics class as an undergrad (~25 years ago), there was a definite overlap between the modeling necessary to understand stellar collapse, and the modeling necessary to build better nuclear weapons.

A late friend who worked on type II supernova simulations was once invited to talk about his team's software with some gentlemen at an NNSA lab, Los Alamos or Livermore or Sandia (I forget which one.)

At the conclusion of the talk, the DOE guys said appreciative things about the current work, but also pointed out that certain avenues of investigation into certain characteristics might lead to the gov't declaring this software classified, and restricting who might have access to it. My friend was at the time not a US citizen, so he would have been locked out of contributing to his own work.

"Nice piece of software you have there, would be a shame if something...happened to it..."

There's a story about a US astrophysicist grad student working on stellar evolution. A visiting Soviet scientist came to give a talk. At the end the student asked a question about one aspect of the talk, something like, how do you know the plasma is transparent to photons at that temperature? The visiting Russian just said "it is." Later, the grad student mentioned it, quizzically, to his advisor. His advisor pointed out that it was something that came out of nuclear bomb research.

I looked, but could not find that anecdote.

Did they attempt to open source the software?

IIRC, the code in question was written under an NSF grant, and probably not that hard to obtain.

Hopefully not

Since subcosmos won't answer, I'll take a guess: Spy satellites.

Anyone can look at those though, they can't really hide them

I worked on a project that happened to have some spy satellite data as noise...

You can hide them. A common practice is to do an orbital maneuver when the satellite is directly between the Sun-Earth line-of-sight, where attempts to use instruments are pretty well saturated/destroyed.

With that said, it is still possible to see where the satellites go after such a boost if you are able to look really close to the limb of the sun with the right kind of equipment :)

Not every hobbyist had access to 1m+ mirrors, though. I imagine you could take a reasonably revealing picture of eg an Orion: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_(satellite)

I don't understand this thread. Sure with enough effort and manpower you can prevennt your own civilians from discovering these. How would the US government stop civilian entities in say Russia or China from discovering these? I still see a marginal potential utility though: not showing adversaries that you have noticed their satellites (in order to prevent them from improving their stealth).

I gasped when I read their main antenna is 330’ wide.

Not as easily if they're equipped with this: http://www.bisbos.com/space_misty.html

Wouldn't that also obscure the camera? I don't actually know what spy sattelites would be used for besides visual imaging aimed at Earth.

Could easily be intended not for visual surveillance but for gathering electromagnetic signals, where an inflatable dome would not be a problem.

Sure, but it's a big telescope mostly buried in the ground designed to look at the sun. Not sure how much use it could possibly be in relation to its proximity to White Sands and/or Holloman.

There are multiple telescopes there.

Solar observatories need to track the sun, so they use a little mirror (heliostat) at the tunnel entrance that changes angle to track the sun, so you can point it anywhere.


I am curious as to what would happen if an organization that owned a large telescope was unwilling to cooperate with such a request.

Perhaps we just found out?

it'd likely have something to do with a long-term non-optional residency as guest of the government in Leavenworth, Kansas

What law would this violate? Please be specific, as legal definitions of things like espionage are often not as broad as a layperson might guess (and on occasion, they're broader).

> What law would this violate?

Once the party was informed, and thus had knowledge, of the national defense sensitivity involves, it would seem arguably to facially violate the Espionage Act of 1917, as amended; in particular, 18 USC §§ 793, 795, and, if they attempt to publish the pictures, 797, and/or, if the order originates with NASA, 799.

Specific enough?

793 requires "intent or reason to believe that the information is to be used to the injury of the United States, or to the advantage of any foreign nation", but 795 and 797 could potentially apply. Thank you.

There's no way prosecutors and courts would actually commit to an Espionage Act conviction of an astronomer for looking at the wrong part of the sky. That's absurd.

Looking? No

Photographing and publishing or sending to unauthorized parties foreign or domestic, bet on it. You might get away with a stern visit from one of the 3-letter-agencies if it's minor importance and ignorance, but do it again...

If you doubt it, please do the test and report back the results.

This guy makes an entire artistic career photographing classified things from public places: http://www.paglen.com/?l=work.

There’s even an active hobbyist community tracking and photographing classified satellites for public message boards: https://www.popsci.com/zuma-spy-satellite-amateur-astronomer....

This isn’t Soviet Russia.

Of course it is not Soviet Russia, and I'm aware of those activities.

It's one thing for amateurs doing those 'trainspotting' type of activities with commercial- or even professional grade equipment, but another to do it with research-grade telescopes and listening equipment.

Obviously the amateurs are basically unstoppable, and are getting the same level of open information that any foreign agent can get by looking in the open. Nothing new is lost and there is no purpose in chasing the amateurs.

However, we're talking about professional astronomers with both higher-grade knowledge, much higher-grade equipment (and likely operating under at least partial govt funding for the project or equipment), and operating under some regulations and laws. It is silly to expect that being noticed breaking those laws or regs would go un-addressed.

But, as stated above, if you feel differently, feel free to do the actual test and report back your results.

Wasn't Sunspot a solar observatory? Wouldn't its telescope be set up for light levels that would make viewing anything on the ground rather problematic?

Its a coverup to prevent the public from learning that the sun is actually flat.

Everybody knows that, how do you think night works? It's when it spins around us and shows its back.

Shhhh .... at least don't tell them about the giant space turtles

Edit: nice username ;)

approximately flat, a big hole in the heavenous sphere, not sure if flat or curved makes sense for a hole

Since it's just about abandoned it's quite possible that foreign agents covertly installed surveillance devices to monitor the nearby bases OR someone noticed something or saw someone trespassing. That would certainly explain that level of activity including a blackhawk.

The views of the AFB and missile range are truly excellent.

Google Maps panoramic view: https://goo.gl/ckkCQc

That yagi-uda in the image makes it plausible that some form of sigint could be conducted there under the cover of mountain telescope operations.

Sarcasm? I just see trees.

I've seen this repeated often, but it doesn't seem to be entirely true - it has an excellent view of White Sands National Monument, not the White Sands Missile Range, which is about 20 miles NNW.

I've been following this since the tenth, and it's weird for sure.

One thing that stands out to me - based on comments from people who live in the area (and who I am confident actually do), the observatory is transitioning from being owned by the federal government to a university. They've gone through a significant staff reduction, and there was basically no one there to tell to leave. Further, while it's been reported that it's "closed to the public", I've seen cellphone video from people who have driven there and walked around. There are no roadblocks, no visible police or security presence... nothing. It's just abandoned.

In short, I'm not convinced this is being accurately reported.

I'm not sure what you're implying. Because there's not a visible security presence, the Alamogordo Daily News is making this up? After law enforcement gets what they need, there's no reason to patrol the property.

> Because there's not a visible security presence, the Alamogordo Daily News is making this up?


At this point, I believe that this was a fairly orderly shutdown (temporary or permanent) that wasn't communicated very well. The "FBI" and "Blackhawk helicopter" were probably federal employees removing federal property from the observatory's antenna arrays before handing it over to the university. I suppose it's possible that some of that could have been classified, since it's situated within line of sight of a military base where project testing occurs and it's conceivable that they might have used that site to received telemetry, but I don't see any reason to think that it's anything more than a case of poor communication between agencies and a pile-on by people who aren't familiar with the details and who want to see something that isn't there.

Note that I was one of those people at first - I gave significant thought to the idea that this was some sort of coverup associated with the coronal mass ejection and the ensuing solar storm that happened right at the same time. As time went on, other solar observatories starting going down and I got much more intensely interested. I took a step back though, and did some more looking around. The other observatory that went down first was in Hawaii, where they were experiencing a tropical storm.

I'll keep watching this, but at this point I think it'll just fade away into nothing, as there really is nothing happening there.

I will give a nod to one theorist on another forum who suggested that the cryptic communication, lack of a press conference, and the local sheriff denying knowledge of everything is all intended as an opportunity to study how conspiracy theories are formed, investigated, and disseminated in online forums. I hope that's the case, because I want to read that paper.

>At this point, I believe that this was a fairly orderly shutdown (temporary or permanent) that wasn't communicated very well. The "FBI" and "Blackhawk helicopter" were probably federal employees removing federal property from the observatory's antenna arrays before handing it over to the university. I suppose it's possible that some of that could have been classified, since it's situated within line of sight of a military base where project testing occurs and it's conceivable that they might have used that site to received telemetry, but I don't see any reason to think that it's anything more than a case of poor communication between agencies and a pile-on by people who aren't familiar with the details and who want to see something that isn't there.

Also, it's really common to go overkill for training purposes.

For example, sending two F15s to go sit on the ground at an air show includes them refueling mid-air and intercepting a B52 that's also headed to the same air show so they can check those training boxes.

Sending the Navy seals to fast-rope in to an observatory and recover the federally owned gigabit switches from the telecom closet is the kind of overkill you get in the name of training.

Your post sounds like a diversion story to me.

In the late 1990s I used imagery (taken on films and later digitized) from the solar observatory at that site ("Sac Peak"). I later visited it for a conference. It's highly remote, and the handful of astronomers there lived in very basic conditions. I seem to remember a house trailer (i.e., a "manufactured home").

Note, Sac Peak is nowhere near the other solar observatory in Kitt Peak, AZ, and it is a daytime observatory as opposed to the much better-provisioned nighttime observatory at nearby Apache Point, NM - where the relatively-new Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) telescope is.

It was a monastic lifestyle on the mountain there, and as the NSF has been backing out of some of its older ground-based observatories in pursuit of newer observing programs like DKIST (the big solar telescope in Hawaii) and LSST, I imagine it has become even more uncomfortable.

> Sac Peak [...] is a daytime observatory [...]

A nighttime solar observatory would have certain... observational challenges.

Could always study the reflection of solar light: the gegenschein

Hah... I suppose a neutrino detector could count?

I toured Sunspot when I was at Apache Point researching about two years ago. Even at this time, Sunspot seemed fairly run down/on the way out.

>“Nobody would give us any information on what was going on,” House [the sheriff] said, before the phone call cut out and repeated attempts to reach him again were unsuccessful.

Seriously? Is this an ARG?

It's difficult to express just how remote these areas are. I've not been to Sunspot, though I've travelled nearby. Cellphone coverage is at best extraordinarily sparse, towns infrequent, and not all those marked on maps have much by way of services.

Gorgeous vistas, though. And staggering brushfires.

What's an ARG?

Huh... TIL: An alternate reality game (ARG) is an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players' ideas or actions.

I was raised in Alamogordo (a satellite town to HAFB and directly 'down the hill' from Sunspot) and, while I don't have any information other than what other posters have offered, I can tell you that my entire family is farrr too excited that our tiny little hometown is national news for once

Edit: for clarification, HAFB and all of White Sands Missile Range sits on flatlands surrounded by two mountains; the Organ Mountains on the west (close to Las Cruces) and Sunspot Observatory sits on the very edge of the mountain ranges to the east. Spying on HAFB and WSMR from Sunspot is certainly plausible.

I once drove the highway through the white sands missile range, 2 days in a row (tourist). I went through a DHS checkpoint twice where they checked my ID and asked detailed questions about where I was going and why. The second day they wanted to know why I had gone two days in a row. There are (where back then anyway) big barriers they would lower to close a portion of the highway during 'missile' tests.

A fascinating place to visit.

Isn't New Mexico State U there? The Aggies?

No, NMSU main campus is over the Organ mountains to the west in Las Cruces. (I graduated from there...) Alamogordo has a small branch-college-sized piece of NMSU.

Yes, it is.

That observatory is near a couple of bases. They likely want to fly some experimental aircraft and minimize the amount of specialized recording equipment in the area.

Why would they shut down the Post Office for that?

Most plausible theory I've seen so far is that the spying one. Maybe they were posting hard-drives or USB sticks from there with footage of the base testing some new equipment or something.

Why wouldn't they?

As best I can tell, the housing up there only serves employees at the observatory, which is closed. What point would there be to keeping the post office open?

Oh OK, I didn't know that (I'm not in the US, just going off comments online because it's an interesting story).

Wouldn't surprise me if some meth manufactures found the place to be fairly empty and was operating out of one of the buildings. Only to get caught shipping product somewhere and the FBI backtracked it to the observatory.

Or even worse, a math lab - can't ever trust those zany cosmologists ....

Would that entail a Blackhawk helicopter and this veil of secrecy?

Heh, this is the most probable explanation yet, and it is being downed? This is a real problem in the US for anyone that hasn't had a meth lab bust in thier local hood, gated community or national/state/muni park.

This seems like a stupidly conspicuous location to setup a meth lab unless you assume that not a single person visits the facility for months at a time and no one would notice large plumes of smoke rising from it.

True, and I don't think it's a meth lab, but using abandoned military buildings does have precedent on drug manufacturing: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/wamego-lsd-missile-silo

No disagreement from me. However, we are talking about tweekers & cookers. They tend to be genuinely resourceful, yet not the most intelligent of peoples.

It took 2 years to get a blatant lab shut down on my upper middle-class street. Ex-neighbor's ex-engine mate happened to transfer from FD to our local PD precinct & made detective. He was the only reason the rat nest was disturbed.

Heisenberg at work? It is Breaking Bad territory after all...

Longer article at https://www.alamogordonews.com/story/news/local/2018/09/07/s...

Anyone have speculations on what this could be?

Apparently the post office was shut down too [1]. Maybe something dangerous/destructive/sensitive was mailed to/from the observatory? Would explain the feds (since post office is federal) and the seemingly thorough search of the property (crews on towers, etc.).

[1] https://www.abqjournal.com/1219922/nm-solar-observatory-clos...

When I look at that article, it’s just a bunch of thick gray lines, as if it’s been completely redacted! Just a bug? Are we being trolled? It’s hilarious, anyway.

(Edit: Ah, there’s a survey form that you have to click “skip” on to see the story. Still hilarious.)

Complete our marketing survey and be rewarded with a free FOIA!

Is it possible the observatory is a front for some kind of SIGINT infrastructure? That's only my best guess, would line up with 'security issue' explanation and people walking around with antennas. I'm not educated in that area though.

Since it's the FBI, then it's probably a domestic threat. Given the huge show of force, my guess is armed extremists threatening to take it over?

This is pure speculation, but I think this QAnon/whitehouse leaker stuff is driving people mad and in the coming years, we'll see rebel groups forming and doing more of this.

> my guess is armed extremists threatening to take it over?

... why?

350 pounds (or 10 tons? Actual amount is unknown) of mercury

... as far as I know, mercury isn't a restricted product and can be shipped to your door.

Here's a video of a guy flushing 240# of mercury down a toilet (NOT connected to a sewer or septic system), just to see if it was possible: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvVaaZ21C44

It's not exactly difficult to find industrial users of mercury, and the mercury at Sunspot is in a sealed instrument. I see no reason why the presence of mercury there would be incentive for an "armed group" to attempt to assault and/or hold the observatory.

Why is he not wearing gloves?!

I'm no expert here, but is metallic mercury that much of a hazard? I thought it was the vapor that was the big risk with handling mercury.

Obviously, I'd be sure of that before I handled it :)

Believe so.

See: mad hatters

OK, I'll bite: why would extremists want a whole bunch of mercury?

It's a useful ingredient in some explosives.

Do observatories usually have hundreds of pounds of mercury?

Some observatories (including this one it seems) use liquid mercury as mirrors:

https://sunspot.solar/about/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_mirror_telescope

For reference, 350 lbs is about 3 gallons of liquid mercury. Mercury is heavy.

My guess is someone's ex-boyfriend/ex-husband had some OChem background and decided to go a bit ted kaczynski. The FBI got involved due to threats of explosives, they went into his apartment and found real evidence of bomb making. Would also be consistent with the Post Office having been shut down if he was planning on mailing anything.

Might also be politically motivated, but I'm going to bet on personal since this observatory was specifically targeted, and not APO (an ex-grad student who feels their academic career was destroyed by someone there would work as well for me).

Or something that rhymes with that and is much more mundane than Chinese spies or secret military tests (but of course just exceptional enough to get the FBI involved and not the local cops -- so an actual credible bomb maker and not just someone phoning in a threat).

Looks like I was on the right track, it was a "criminal investigation" and:

"During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents."


Looks like a small sliver of the observatory is blurred on Google Maps. https://www.google.com/maps/@32.7882221,-105.8176836,349a,35...

No blurring for me

No blurring on Bing Maps (I know, the horror)

looks ok to me, loading error?

i'm seeing the same, it certainly looks like the intentional blurring that google maps does for sensitive things: https://imgur.com/RqjnQTo

If you rotate around that blur, it appears to have depth, like it's just above the surface. You can see beneath it at the right angle, revealing the top of the dome.

Maybe an algorithm thought the spherical dome was a human anatomical feature needing blurring for privacy.

The shape of the blur is very strange for anything intentional. Unless the shape itself is extra intentional entropy.

Comment on the gizmodo post on this states there's been hazmat suits and possible mercury leakage:


From a liquid mirror, maybe?

The photo in that article is not of the Sunspot Observatory, but of the Apache Point Observatory next door. I wonder if it is just Sunspot or both? I haven’t been up there since spring but I usually visit several times a year, so I’m very curious what’s going on. I may head up to APO this weekend and see if I can get on premesis.

Emergency evacuation drill for a Nuclear/terrorism attack. Theory suggestion.

The final scene of "Starman" with Jeff Bridges?

Isn't this a Stephen King movie?

It's also reminiscent of a plot point from "Anathem" which came out almost exactly 10 years ago

The thousanders are up there?

It's closed due to UFOs. ;D


(But seriously, my guess would be some kind of DoD/security thing? Was someone there doing military research and got hacked? Because that would explain why the FBI would lock it down and not let anyone else in law enforcement go near...)

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