Worth 1,000 theories

Area 51: Pictures from space give UFO and conspiracy buffs a confirmed sighting.

April 19, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

They may prove nothing new one way or the other, but that doesn't keep Walter Andrus from getting excited.

"These are the clearest photos I've seen yet," says the international director of the Mutual UFO Network in Seguin, Texas. "You can see so much more detail now. The government denied it for years and years, of course, but this is just further confirmation: Area 51 really exists."

The object of Andrus' passion: a series of new, high-resolution photographs that Aerial Images Inc., of Raleigh, N.C., posted on its Web site this week. The satellite-mapping company, in cooperation with four private concerns and the Russian agency Sovinformsputnik, has produced a set of new images of Groom Dry Lake Air Force Base, the ultra-secret government test site in Nevada that has long been an obsession of UFO trackers and conspiracy theorists.

Situated in the Nellis Mountains 75 miles northwest of Las Vegas, the base is where the Air Force has tested such top-secret new aircraft as the F-117A stealth fighter and the B-2 stealth bomber. Conspiracy buffs have long believed the U.S. military also conducts secret tests of recovered extraterrestrial spacecraft at the site, which they call Area 51 for its designation on old test-site maps.

The base was built just after World War II, says Andrus, but for decades the government managed to deny its existence. Because airspace above the site is restricted, few accurate photos of the region exist.

"If you fly anywhere near the place, they threaten to shoot you down," Andrus says. The only previous pictures have been fuzzy, but on this new set -- taken with state-of-the-art equipment and posted on Aerial Images' Web site (www.terraserver.com, which was overwhelmed by visitors yesterday) -- "you can make out airstrips, antennas, buildings and a number of unpaved roads."

David Mountain, a spokesman for Aerial Images, denies his company had any agenda in creating the photographs and is tight-lipped when it comes to speculating on their significance.

"We set out to deliver aerial photographs of Earth to the public," he says. "All I can say is these pictures show the existence of a number of facilities out in the middle of nowhere, in the Nevada desert. I'm not an Area 51 expert, and these offer no definitive proof one way or the other" of activities involving aliens or their spacecraft.

Indeed, no other-worldly beings appear in any of the photographs. But in the world of UFO believers, even that fact is not discouraging.

"You know what this does prove?" says Andrus. "That the government can keep a secret."

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