FAS | Intelligence | Agencies | Search | Join FAS


FAS masthead FAS Project on Intelligence Reform

Area 51 - Groom Lake, NV
Watertown Strip / The Ranch
Directorate for Development Plans Area

Firms Releases Imagery of Area 51
On 17 April 2000 Aerial Images posted on its Web site 2-meter imagery of Area 51 acquired by Russia's Space Information KVR-1000 satellite system. The Area 51 images were acquired as part of the company's deal with Sovinformsputnik, a commercial arm of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency.

FAS ordered an IKONOS 1-meter resolution image of Area-51 in mid-February 2000. As of early April 2000 SpaceImaging stated that the request remained "in collection" and had offered a variety of explanations as to why it has taken over two months not to collect imagery. On 18 April 2000, SpaceImaging released the requested image, which had been acquired on 02 April 2000.

News Coverage

  • "Private eyes in the sky," The Economist May 06, 2000 - Pike obtained the first one-metre images of Groom Lake, better known as Area 51, the most secret military complex in America.
  • "The secret's out," New Scientist 06 May 2000 -- Federation of American Scientists' believe that the continuing speculation about the use of Area 51 illustrates everything that is harmful and ridiculous about post-Cold War government secrecy.
  • "Groom Lake Base Revealed In Sharp, New Satellite Images," MICHAEL A. DORNHEIM Aviation Week & Space Technology May 1, 2000 - Space Imaging made its 1-meter photo available a few days later (see p. 61). It was taken by the Ikonos satellite much more recently, on Apr. 2, two months after it was requested by the Federation of American Scientists in February.
  • "Area 51 photos show satellite imaging market heating up," By MARTHA WAGGONER Associated Press April 25, 2000 -- "The competition between these companies is going to make it difficult for the U.S. government to control the market," said John Pike, the FAS Webmaster who ordered the 1-meter photos from Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo.
  • Snooping's Not Just for Spies Any More By WILLIAM J. BROAD The New York Times April 23, 2000 - The investigative use of space imagery has been strongly encouraged by the Public Eye program of the Federation of American Scientists. Its newest target is Area 51, and it played a big role in the release of the new imagery.
  • Hacker disrupts service to Area 51 Web site By MARTHA WAGGONER, Associated Press April 21, 2000 - John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., said he would guess the attack was an external denial of service, like the one that happened to Yahoo! a few months ago, and not from someone who gained access to the server.
  • "Area 51 revealed in satellite views," By Alan Boyle MSNBC 17 April 2000 -- 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.
  • "Uncle Sam, show us the UFOs," By Paul Bedard U.S.News & World Report 1/24/00 -- The Federation of American Scientists is daring the government to come clean on one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century - Area 51. In a test of wills, the nerdy group famous for its efforts to reduce Big Brother's secrecy has hired Denver-based Space Imaging to shoot satellite photos of the highly protected Pentagon facility. John Pike of the FAS doesn't expect to discover futuristic new aircraft for his $1,000 effort.
  • The Significance of Area 51 Imagery

    Apart from the simple voyeuristic thrill of gazing upon secret things, which cannot be denied, there is a larger public policy interest in overhead imagery of Area 51. The end of the Cold War has occasioned only modest reforms in the grotesquely hypertrophied security and classification system that insensibly developed as the bodyguard of lies against the Soviet Union. These security measures were not entirely without foundation, as they were implemented to protect American weapons systems from being copied or countered by the Soviet adversary.

    But they were not without price, as over time the secret government within the security enclave became increasingly unaccountable to an increasingly distrustful public. With the end of the Cold War, and in the absence of a worthy adversary with the potential to copy or counter American weapons, it was presumed that there would be an adjustment in the security and classification system, towards greater transparency and public accountability.

    With some notable exceptions, however, the security enclave remains remarkably unchanged from its Cold War configuration. Indeed, in recent years a backlash has emerged, tending to reverse even the modest gains in public accountability of the 1990s.

    Humor is one of the few tools available for public efforts to shift the boundaries of the security enclave. Declining to take "secrets" seriously constitutes a fundamental epistemological critique of a security and classification edifice that does far more to protect bureaucratic interests than to protect the national interest.

    Highlighting the discrepancy between what the public knows, and what the government will acknowledge, is a key instrument in teasing out the absurdities of the security enclave. There is no better opportunity for such mirth than Area 51. The US Government has only recently acknowledged the "fact of the existence" of this facility, despite ample publicity and super-abundant speculation over the past decades.

    The Good Book says "the guilty flee where none pursueth, but the righteous are bold as a lion" [Proverbs 28:1]. Over time the profound secrecy surrounding Area 51 has engendered an elaborate edifice of popular culture, rehearsed most famously in the movie "Independence Day." Sceptical observers may perhaps be forgiven for suspecting that Area 51 is the repository for captured Alien technology, since it would otherwise be difficult to imagine any other secret so awful as to require the level of secrecy surrounding this facility.

    Reducing the excessive secrecy at Area 51, and throughout the government generally, is an essential step towards restoring the bonds between American society and the American government.

    Corona Coverage of Groom Lake

    An exhaustive search for imagery of Groom Lake at the National Archives has revealed that all Corona imagery of Groom Lake has been deleted from the original negatives as well as the duplicate positives. This is apparently the case for the duplicate positives set located at the USGS EROS data at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The deletions appear to have taken place over thirty years ago, when the film was originally placed into the Talent-Keyhole SCI Codeword intelligence system.

    The implications of this finding are interesting to say the least. What this means is that an imagery analyst who had a Top Secret security clearance and who had been indoctrinated in the Talent-Keyhole system, still did not have a sufficient clearance to see imagery of Groom Lake. This level of compartmentation of intelligence information borders on the surreal.

    Lessons Learned - Public Imagery

    Apart from the intrinsic interest in Area 51 itself, overhead imagery of this facility provides important insights into the dynamics of publicly available high-resolution satellite imagery.

    The new 1-meter IKONOS imagery provides substantial interpretability gains relative to previously available 2-meter imagery. This fact should be self-evident from the simple physical reality that a single pixel in a 2-meter image is revealed as four pixels in a 1-meter image. If it is not self evident, contemplation of Area 51 at various resolutions should prove enlightening.

    If one picture is worth a thousand words, two pictures are worth ten thousand words. The availability of new 1-meter imagery does not render older 2-meter imagery obsolete, but actually increases the importance of the older products. Although each of the images of Area 51 is interesting, much of what can be learned from these images is learned through comparison of imagery acquired over time. While the importance of negation imagery and change extraction is self-evident to the classified national imagery exploitation community, the classified community operates in an environment of profound abundance relative to the public imagery community. Publicly available imagery generally consists of global coverage with declassified CORONA 2-meter imagery [with a 1972 cut-off date], Russian 2-meter imagery from the 1980s and 1990s [though with limited geographic coverage], and the new 1-meter imagery such as is available from IKONOS. Over time the 1-meter archive will grow, but absent the assistance of a time machine the new commercial systems will unavoidably remain artifacts of the Third Millennium. Public imagery exploitation campaigns will continue to derive considerable benefit from Second Millennium systems such as CORONA and the Russian SPIN-2.

    Imagery is expensive, but imagery is cheap. The basic cost of acquiring commercial satellite imagery has discouraged potential users from investigating applications of this product, but imagery acquisition costs are only a small fraction of the total cost of an imagery campaign. Imagery from the new commercial high-resolution satellite systems typically costs thousands of dollars for each scene. For IKONOS, the costs can range from about $1,000 for a small scene covering territory inside the United States to over $5,000 for a large scene of territory outside the United States. The intelligence cycle is conventionally partitioned into tasking, collection, processing and dissemination -- figuring out what you want, getting it, figuring out what you have gotten, and telling others what you have. In round numbers, it may be conveniently estimated that the cost of each of these four elements of the intelligence cycle are roughly the same. Although commercial satellite imagery can cost thousands of dollars, in the real world this may represent only a quarter of the total cost of an imagery campaign. The other three quarters of the cost is represented in staff time and other expenses associated with tasking, processing and dissemination. Although commentators have largely focused on interpretation as the greatest challenge facing the public imagery community, in the real world the other components of the intelligence cycle are equally if not more challenging. In any event, they are certainly extremely time consuming. Previously expressed concerns about the potential for commercial high resolution imagery to compromise the security of American military operations [such as the "left hook / Hail Mary" maneuver of American forces in the prelude to Desert Storm] have not taken into account the time and motion investment that would be required to implement such an imagery campaign. In the real world, such a campaign would be extraordinarily challenging, and expensive, and it is not immediately evident that either the news media or non-governmental organizations would be pre-disposed to mount the requisite effort [totally apart from whatever shutter control might be imposed]. Indeed, now that some practical time and motion data is available on the collection management of the commercial 1-meter product, it would be interesting to undertake a retrospective "what could we know and when could we know it" analysis of the Desert Storm exemplar. This could provide greater fidelity on the cost/benefit tradespace that would confront a public imagery campaign focused on US military operations, and the risks [if any] that could be mitigated by US government shutter control policies.

    The visible hand of the imagery marketplace is moving pixel-pushers towards greater customer satisfaction. In early February 2000 it was publicly reported that FAS had tasked SpaceImaging to provide imagery of Area 51. It would appear that the decision of Aerial Images to provide Russian imagery of Area 51 through the TerraServer implementation was driven in some measure by an awareness of the probable public interest in such imagery, and the possibility of regaining mind-share from SpaceImaging. It cannot escape notice that SpaceImaging provided the long-awaited IKONOS imagery a few hours after the debut of Area 51 on TerraServer [some two weeks after the image was actually acquired]. Such market competition may [or may not] stress the US government's shutter control policy, which is predicated on retaining control of commercially available high resolution imagery through pre-emption of the marketplace by companies subject to US government licensing restrictions. Information age industries are generally characterized by "first past the post, winner take all" market dynamics. Information industry innovators, particularly those which achieve early market dominance, are effectively able to pre-empt the market and preclude other later entrants from gaining significant market share. Microsoft is the exemplar of this dynamic, and the enthusiasm with which the various dot.com internet companies burn money is predicated on exploiting this dynamic of transforming mind-share into market share. Four of the five announced entrants into the high resolution commercial imagery market are licensed by the US Government, and subject to US Government shutter control restrictions. The fifth announced entrant is a Russian company, and the status of this Russian project remains uncertain. Apart from the commercial interests of the American companies selling Russian imagery [the Aerial Images / TerraServer partnership], it is interesting to speculate on Russian interests in releasing Area 51 imagery. In March 2000 SpaceImaging released "before and after" imagery of the devastation caused by the Russian military assault on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. While it is probably futile to speculate on the precise process that led to the public release of the Russian imagery of Area 51, this exploit may serve as a useful exemplar of a "retaliatory release" of imagery.

    Commercial 1-meter imagery appears stabilizing rather than de-stabilizing, far more applicable to peace-time verification than to war-time targeting. During the Cold War the transparency created by satellite imagery was generally regarded as contributing to stability. One of the primary concerns raised by the advent of commercial near-realtime imagery is the possibility that it could be used for wartime targeting and damage assessment, which could be regarded as de-stabilizing. The potential for such warfighting applications depends first on how near to realtime the "near-realtime" product actually is, and second [and most importantly] on the dependability and predictability of the product. In the real world, an imagery intelligence system with a latency [the interval between tasking and delivery] of a few days may or may not be useful for warfighting. In principle, the IKONOS system can provide collection managers with such "near"-realtime imagery, as demonstrated by the next-day collection of imagery of a 28 March 2000 tornado in Texas. In practice, the delay of over two months in providing an image of Area 51 strongly suggests that commercial vendors such as SpaceImaging would not be regarded as "usually reliable source" for warfighting intelligence.

    Apart from the intrinsic interest in Area 51, the Public Eye initiative of the Federation of American Scientists tasked IKONOS imagery of this facility as an experiment to validate the potential applicability of commercial high resolution imagery to warfighting applications. The explicit restrictions on commercial imagery are well-known -- no high resolution imagery of Israel, and shutter control when imposed by the US government in connection with military operations. The possibility of less formal or explicit restrictions on the availability of imagery is less well understood, though perhaps subject to experimental verification. The possibility could not be excluded that additional restriction on imagery availability, beyond the formal legal requirements of the government license, could result from either explicit corporate policy or informal influence from various sources. If in fact such informal shutter controls were to be imposed, Area 51 would surely be a leading candidate for such restrictions. The operational security managers of the Groom Lake facility are surely the world's most experienced, and presumably the most competent, practitioners of the art of hiding things from reconnaissance satellites. While there was no reason to anticipate that commercial imagery of this facility would reveal anything of particular sensitivity, Area 51 itself is nonetheless perhaps the most "sensitive" US Government facility, and thus an excellent candidate for an experimental exploration of informal shutter control. Indeed, several years ago, in response to the announced intention of FAS to eventually acquire imagery of Area 51, it was publicly reported that SpaceImaging intended as a matter of corporate policy to sell no imagery of any US military facility, to include Area 51. It would not be particularly productive to speculate too deeply on the sources of the profound delay in the availability of the IKONOS imagery of Area 51. This delay will not escape the notice of military intelligence collection managers around the world. The tasking responsiveness of the IKONOS system remains obscure, if not opaque, and such commercial systems would not appear a promising source for reliable near-realtime targeting intelligence.

    Area 51 Ground Truth

    Area 51 Backbirds

  • U-2
  • SR-71
  • D-21
  • TACIT BLUE
  • F-117
  • YF-110
  • YF-113

  • Aurora

    Sources and Methods

  • Area 51 Research Center
  • Dreamland Resort
  • Aliens on Earth
  • Area 51 Resources
  • Area 51 Aircraft Database
  • UFO Crash Site
  • Blue Fire Papoose Lake and Nellis Range.
  • Groom Lake Security Manual
  • Groom Lake Timeline By Tom Mahood
  • Soviet satellite photograph of Groom Lake @ PoitinPress.Com
  • Area 51 Facility Overview

    Protected by almost a thousand square miles of restricted airspace and surrounded by the Nevada Test Site lies a secret airbase where the government has tested advanced technology aircraft for the past forty years. Known to most people as Area 51, the facility also has been referred to as Groom Lake, The Ranch, Watertown strip, and within the government the Directorate for Development Plans Area. Area 51 is an official government secret, and yet widely known in the popular culture. The enormous steps the government has taken to keep the fact of the existence of this secret test facility out of the public domain are matched only by the public's interest in the site, and by the extensive amount of information that is available in the open press. Much of the interest in Area 51 comes from members of the UFO subculture who are at least suspicious if not convinced that crashed alien spacecraft as well as the bodies of aliens are stored at Area 51.

    In a sense, the government's security problem is self-inflicted. Excessive government secrecy during the Cold War, domestic spying and other scandals by the CIA, the belated declassification of the explanation of UFO sightings later explained in the Roswell report, secret radiation experiments on unwitting citizens by the Department of Energy (then Atomic Energy Commission) have contributed to an intense suspicion among some that the government is "hiding something." This perception is not unjustified given the extensive secrecy surrounding the facility. Of course the government is hiding something -- a secret flight test facility for advanced technology aircraft.

    Groom Lake started out as an Army Air Corps Gunnery Range during World War II. In the mid-1950's Lockheed was searching for a remote base to test its new U-2 spy plane. Although the runway on the remote dry lake bed was unusable, the location was deemed to be ideal due to its remoteness and by the summer of 1955 construction of a 5,000 foot runway began, with two hangars and some temporary living quarters. Later surplus Navy military quarters were dismantled, shipped to Groom, and reassembled. The first U-2 arrived on a C-124 later in 1955. The U-2 was reassembled, checked out, and on August 4, 1955 Tony Levier made the first flight test.

    With the arrival of the A-12 program the runway was lengthened to 8,500 feet, fuel storage tanks capable of holding up to 1,320,000 gallon of JP-7 were added, as well as three surplus navy hangars and 100 surplus Navy housing buildings. Eight hangars at the south end of the base were built to house the A-12 spy planes.

    By the 1980's a weapons storage area south of the main base was added, with five earth-covered igloos, presumably to support weapons testing for the F-117 program, and possibly the advanced cruise missile program.

    Until recently, the facility was supported by one 12,400-long, 100-foot-wide hard surface runway, which extends onto the dry lake bed North, giving it a total length of 25,300 feet or 4.8 miles. Sometime in the early 1990's this runway was deactivated, and replaced by a new 11,960-foot-long, 140-foot-wide runway.

    Several indicators suggest that Groom Lake's flight test activity did not end with the F-117 Stealth Fighter. First, construction of a new runway, which must have started sometime after the F-117 program had been made public. Second, the numerous reports by aviation enthusiasts and others of unusual aircraft noise and lights at night in the years since the F-117 became public. Third, the 1995 action by the Department of Interior to withdraw 3,972 acres of Bureau of Land Management land, from public access, creating a security buffer zone to prevent public viewing of military activities at Groom Lake.

    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery 15 March 1998 - SPIN-2
    Imagery from TerraServer.com Copyright Aerial Images, Inc. and SOVINFORMSPUTNIK. Distribution and publishing in any form requires permission from Aerial Images, Inc.
    02 April 2000 - IKONOS
    FAS ordered an IKONOS 1-meter resolution image of Area-51 in mid-February 2000. As of early April 2000 spaceimaging.com stated that the request remained "in collection" and had offered a variety of explanations as to why it has taken over two months not to collect imagery. On 18 April 2000, SpaceImaging released the requested image, which had been acquired on 02 April 2000.
    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery
    New Runway
    One of the most obvious changes from 1968 to 1998 is the construction of a new 11,960 foot runway replacing the older 12,400 foot runway 32 Left to the west. Runway 32 Right. The Southern end of Runway 32R is blackened with about twice the tire skid marks than at the north end of the runway suggesting that the prevailing winds are from the north throughout most of the year. It is not clear how far on to the dry lake the Runway 32 Right overrun extends. At the south end of 32R there are six final flight check spaces on the runway apron. At each end of the runway there is a runway barrier net and arresting cable
    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery
    15 March 1998 - SPIN-2 2-meter
    New Construction
    The Area 51 facility has been significantly expanded between 1968 and 1998, with many existing facilities being improved, and a number of new facilities added.
    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery
    15 March 1998 - SPIN-2 2-meter
    02 April 2000 - IKONOS 1-meter
    North Base - Hangars and Housing
    The four large hangars at the north of the base, present in the 1968 image, have evidently been enlarged by the time of the 1998 image. In addition, the housing complex for base personnel -- the large array of smaller buildings to the south of the hangars, has been entirely rebuilt between 1968 and 1998, with the additional of new support facilities.
    A B-52 aircraft is visible in the 1968 image. No aircraft are visible in the 1998 image or the 2000 scene.
    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery
    15 March 1998 - SPIN-2 2-meter
    02 April 2000 - IKONOS 1-meter
    South Base Hangars
    Perhaps the most significant expansion in operational capabilities in noted in the southern part of the base. The half dozen hangars present in the 1968 image are all evident in the 1998 image, but the total number of hangars in this area has doubled during the intervening three decades. The most noteworthy addition is the hangar with the high peaked roof visible in the top of the 1998 image.
    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery
    15 March 1998 - SPIN-2 2-meter
    02 April 2000 - IKONOS 1-meter
    Tank Farm - South Base
    The tank farm visible in the 1968 image, consisting of seven large storage tanks and three smaller tanks, remains visible in the 1998 image. The wide separation of the larger tanks is suggestive of fuel for aircraft. The 1988 imagery shows a large asphalt plant, that was used to construct the new 11,960 foot runway.
    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery
    15 March 1998 - SPIN-2 2-meter
    02 April 2000 - IKONOS 1-meter
    New Construction - South Base
    Ikonos imagery has revealed that this 32 acre facility is a small weapons storage area with three small igloos and two larger igloos.
    28 August 1968 - USGS Aerial imagery
    15 March 1998 - SPIN-2 2-meter
    02 April 2000 - IKONOS 1-meter


    FAS | Intelligence | Agencies ||| Search | Join FAS


    http://www.fas.org/irp/overhead/groom.htm

    Created by John Pike
    Maintained by Steven Aftergood

    [an error occurred while processing this directive]