Trending: Microsoft invests $1 billion in OpenAI, vows to build AI tech platform of ‘unprecedented scale’
Sunspot Solar Obwervatory
The Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope is the centerpiece of the Sunspot Solar Observatory on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico. (National Science Foundation Photo)

A federal search warrant indicates that the Sunspot Solar Observatory in New Mexico and surrounding homes were evacuated this month not because of alien visitation, but because of a child pornography investigation.

The warrant and an accompanying affidavit lays out the details of an FBI investigation that came to focus on a janitor who worked at the observatory atop Sacramento Peak, which serves as America’s national center for ground-based solar physics.

The details make for a story that has more in common with the police blotter than with the UFO tales and solar doomsday warnings that were spawned by the observatory’s previously puzzling 10-day closure.

During a search through a child protection database in July, federal agents reportedly identified child porn that was downloaded to IP addresses on the observatory’s wireless network. An affidavit from the FBI said the facility’s chief observer discovered a laptop that appeared to contain pornography. The time frames for the downloads were found to match times when the janitor was on the premises, the affidavit said.

After the laptop was seized, the janitor began making comments to the effect that “security was so lax” at the facility, according to the affidavit.

“I should be able to throw a laptop down in a room and not have to worry about someone stealing it,” the janitor was quoted as saying.

Then, on Sept. 5, the chief observer told a federal agent that he was concerned about his personal safety. According to the observer’s account in court filings, the janitor said he believed there was a serial killer in the area, and that the killer “might enter the facility and execute someone.”

Representatives of the National Science Foundation, the National Solar Observatory and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the Sunspot Solar Observatory, decided to evacuate the premises on Sept. 6. That decision was taken “without advice from the FBI,” the affidavit said.

The FBI continued its investigation during the closure, and executed the search warrant at the janitor’s home on Friday. The items seized there included three cell phones, five laptop computers, an iPad tablet, two hard drives, 16 thumb drives, eight compact flash disks and four SD cards, according to the FBI’s filed receipt.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, better known as AURA, reopened the observatory and visitors center on Monday with beefed-up security. A statement from AURA said that it was “cooperating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity,” and that the facility was evacuated because “a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents.” AURA did not provide further details as to the nature of the case, however.

The janitor is named in the warrant, but his name is not being published because he has not been charged.

Update for 10:20 a.m. PT Sept. 20: In response to inquiries, AURA spokeswoman Shari Lifson said in an email that “we cannot on an ongoing law enforcement investigation.”

Subscribe to GeekWire's Space & Science weekly newsletter

Comments

Job Listings on GeekWork

IT DirectorRad Power Bikes
Marketing TechnologistMemorial Healthcare System
Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.