Conspiracy Theories Still Swirl Around the Sunspot Solar Observatory Evacuation

Speculation ranges from the strange to the mundane

Sunspot Solar Observatory
A year after being evacuated, New Mexico's Sunspot Solar Observatory remains at the center of conspiracy theories.
NM-State/Creative Commons

A remote research facility. A mysterious evacuation. A government reticent to comment on anything. It’s not hard to see why the 2018 evacuation of the Sunspot Solar Observatory near Alamogordo, New Mexico has gotten lodged in the minds of so many — and spawned more than a few conspiracy theories.

A new article by Dylan Taylor-Lehman at Narratively investigated the events that led to the evacuation — and explored the theories that have arisen in the year since then. Taylor-Lehman was working for a local paper when the initial evacuation took place, giving him a front-row seat for the events that followed.

Given the remote location of the observatory and the work done there, people both local and far afield began to speculate as to the reasons for the evacuation. These ideas ranged from the plausible (espionage) to the less plausible (a mercury leak) to the downright strange (aliens). 

Taylor-Lehman also notes that some of the conspiracy theories were accelerated due to a lack of local knowledge of the site. 

A big deal was made of Sunspot’s businesses and post office being evacuated, for example, as if an entire town was ordered to leave, but in reality they were all part of the same small facility — the businesses were Sunspot’s visitor’s center and the post office was a room in a house on the site.

As more time passed and conspiracy theories deepened, this led to moments of bizarre comedy — think the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading or The X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’.” 

One video posted on YouTube contained drone footage of two mysterious men in black walking through the site. Another video featured a man pointing out that he was being recorded by government drones as he strolled through the facility. It turned out that the two YouTubers, each of whom was convinced of the gravity of what they uncovered, were filming each other.

As it turns out, the reason why the facility was evacuated was far more mundane than sinister government conspiracies or infiltration by extraterrestrials. Though Taylor-Lehman points out that even the actual explanation hasn’t satisfied some, who view it as a cover story for something far more sinister. In an age where prominent conspiracy theorists occupy a major role in the collective American imagination, that’s far less surprising than it should be.

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