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When NSA moves out, its mysteries remain

Surprises: Astronomers who took over an abandoned spy base find remarkable, expensive and often incomprehensible stuff at every turn.

January 05, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Inside, past a small door less than 4 feet tall, the ball glows white, lighted by the sunlight outside reflecting and bouncing inside from one triangle to another.

In its center is a 40-foot satellite dish, cleaner and smoother than any of the others. It looks new, though it has been there for years. There are unusual numbered patterns on the dish's white panels, laid out like a cheat sheet to a jigsaw puzzle. The astronomers believe that the triangles vary in size as a clever way to minimize the effect of interference that comes from patterns.

Enclosing the dish under such a surface, they speculate, would protect it from the weather, and prevent anyone else from seeing it or reading the direction it is pointed.

For the astronomers, though, this curious dish is somewhat irrelevant. They need dishes with large faces, like the two bigger ones, to read the radio signals of stars millions of light-years from Earth.

From far above on the perfectly level, perfectly painted helicopter pad with a view of miles of mountains and green trees, Powers laughed at the differences between the previous owners and the astronomers, a group short on staff and scraping for funding. He studied the golf ball.

"You'll go a long way before you find anything like that around anywhere else," he said. " ... But nothing about this place is what it seems."

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