The first detailed satellite images of Area 51, the top-secret Air Force test site in Nevada, apparently reveal nothing out of the ordinary. Then again, UFO buffs might just think it's another trick.
Raleigh-based Aerial Images Inc. - in collaboration with Microsoft, Kodak, Digital Equipment Corp., Autometric Inc. and the Russian agency Sovinformsputnik - posted five images Monday on the Web of the hush-hush location.
The partners launched a Russian satellite from Kazakstan in 1998 to map Earth's surface. An open-skies agreement signed in 1992 by 24 nations, including the United States and Russia, made the effort possible.
"The site is being hammered," said John Hoffman, president of Aerial Images. "This is the first glimpse into the most secret training and testing facility for the Air Force."
The Air Force only recently acknowledged that Groom Dry Lake Air Force Base even exists. The 8,000-square-mile base is 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas, in the arid, rugged Nellis Range.
Beginning with the U-2 spy plane in the 1950s, the base has been the testing ground for a host of top-secret aircraft, including the SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117A stealth fighter and B-2 stealth bomber.
The base's airspace is restricted; aircraft aren't allowed to fly over it. But satellite overflights are allowed as part of an agreement to verify arms-control compliance.
Among UFO aficionados, the site has long been known simply as Area 51, the base's designation on old Nevada test site maps. They believe unidentified flying objects are hidden at the base, where their parts are copied for U.S. prototypes.
The images, with resolution good enough to distinguish a car from a truck, are better than earlier telephoto shots from nearby mountains. The only other known image purportedly was shot by a satellite in the 1960s.
Several government agencies are aware of the images and haven't responded, said Hoffman, 52. "I've had no feedback from anybody that indicates anybody gives a hoot," he said.
"We acknowledge having an operating site there, and the work is classified," Air Force spokeswoman Gloria Cales said. The work involves "operations critical to the U.S. military and the country's security."
From Aerial Images, at www.terraserver.com, surfers can click on the Area 51 pages. Viewing the images is free; downloading them costs dlrs 8.95 and up. Kodak will print photographs for dlrs 20 to dlrs 30.
The images show craters, some seemingly formed by something dropped from the sky, others possibly by something coming out of the ground. There are hundreds of buildings, living quarters, tennis courts, a baseball field, a track and a swimming pool.
There are no paved roads and no parking lots; buses are the only visible vehicles, raising the question of how employees get to and from work. Unpaved roads disappear into cliffsides, suggesting a possible underground network.
Even Chris Carter, creator of "The X-Files," apparently was skeptical when Hoffman told him of the site. Some of the show's favorite themes are UFOs and secret government activities.
"He clearly didn't believe me," Hoffman said. "From his tone, you could tell he didn't believe me that we had Area 51 and we had the whole area covered."
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