Area 51 discovered -- on the Net

Site posts Russian satellite photos that purportedly show a supersecret U.S. military base that has been the center of UFO legends.

Hoping to cash in on the "X-Files" factor, an American company has posted Russian satellite images of Nevada's Area 51, the supersecret military complex that has been the focus of UFO legends for more than a decade.

No little green men or black triangles are visible, but the new views could have an impact on some very real controversies surrounding Area 51.

"Area 51" - a term taken from old test-site maps of the Nevada desert - refers to a complex of classified military facilities spread across thousands of square miles around Nellis Air Force Base.

Although the Pentagon barely acknowledges the existence of the facilities and severely limits access to the area, it's generally recognized that "black-budget" aircraft ranging from the U-2 high-altitude surveillance plane to the F-117A stealth fighter and the B-2 stealth bomber have been tested in Area 51. There have been more dramatic claims as well, to the effect that technologies from alien civilizations - such as the "black triangle" craft occasionally reported in Western skies - are being studied there. Such is the stuff of TV shows like "The X-Files" and movies like "Independence Day."

The pictures released Monday by TerraServer.com won't provide any smoking guns for the conspiracy theorists, but there are plenty of new details to mull over. The images cover more than 12,000 square miles (31,080 square kilometers) with a resolution of 2 meters (6.6 feet) per picture element. That resolution is sharp enough to make out buildings, runways, roads and vehicles, but not to spot people or license plates.

The photos were taken by the Russian Kometa satellite two years ago and provided to the North Carolina-based company a year ago under a commercial agreement, said John Hoffman, TerraServer's chairman and founder. It's taken another year to process the images and make the necessary preparations for putting them on the TerraServer Web site, he said.

Internet users can view the photos for free, and purchase the digital files at prices starting at $7.95, TerraServer announced.

The 2-year-old company, owned and operated by Aerial Images, offers a database of imagery showing much of the United States and areas of more than 60 other countries.

Hoffman acknowledged that he went to the trouble of alerting Chris Carter, creator of "The X-Files," about the availability of the Area 51 imagery. "It's interesting that a lot of people don't believe that we really have it," he said.

The new images show bomb craters, criss-crossing runways, plenty of buses and what appears to be a shrouded airplane, as well as a multitude of mounds and depressions that hint at underground facilities. But there are no futuristic aircraft in plain sight - which Hoffman said was not surprising.

"Everybody at the military facilities knows when a satellite is going over," he said. "When a satellite is going over, everything gets put away."

He said the new images didn't involve any national security issues, since the 1992 "Open Skies" agreement provides for satellite monitoring to check whether military facilities were in compliance with arms control agreements. Moreover, the pictures released Monday are now more than two years old.

"We've heard nothing from any agency in our government about this," he said.

Even though there are no UFOs to be seen, Hoffman said the images were likely to spark new analyses.

"There's a heck of a lot more infrastructure out there than I thought there was," he said. "A lot of the facilities out there are very interesting, and you say, what is that? ... What do they do, and why are they there? We have no idea."

John Pike, an expert on space imagery at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists, said he was intrigued by the sheer size of the Area 51 complex - especially when the pictures are compared with overhead imagery produced in 1968 for the U.S. Geological Survey. The federation posted side-by-side comparisons on its Web site Monday afternoon.

"It has expanded substantially, and as little as two years ago, there was substantial construction under way. ... This really demonstrates that if one picture is worth a thousand words, then two pictures are worth 10,000 words," he said.

The pictures also may play a part in a lawsuit brought against the government by Area 51 workers, said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who represents the plaintiffs. The workers claim that they were hurt by exposure to hazardous chemicals at the base, and in February, a federal judge ordered the government to pay $200,000 in legal fees while the deliberations continue.

Turley said the court rulings are already forcing the government to be in closer compliance with environmental laws, although President Bill Clinton recently issued an executive order exempting the military facilities from environmental regulations on national security grounds.

"The workers are still in court arguing that the government had used classification laws solely to conceal evidence of crimes committed at the base," Turley said. The fact that more information about Area 51 is becoming widely available could have a bearing on such an argument, he said.

Pike said "it would be very unfortunate" if it turned out that the military was using claims of national security as a legal smokescreen. He said the work being done at the Nevada facilities was "not significantly different from what goes on at Edwards Air Force Base" in California - a facility that has far less mystique.

"I can understand the necessity of some of the security measures at Area 51, but they really take it too far," he said.