How Area 51 Works

Where is Area 51?

A satellite view of Area 51
A satellite view of Area 51
©2007 Google Earth™ mapping service/DigitalGlobe

Area 51's coordinates are 37 degrees 14 minutes north latitude, 115 degrees 48 minutes west longitude. You can get a great view of it using Google Earth. Just type "Area 51" into the "Fly To" field and the map does the rest.

For decades, the base remained hidden from almost everyone. Satellite imagery of the area was routinely deleted from government databases. In 1973, Skylab astronauts inadvertently photographed the airfield. However, according to declassified documents, the CIA managed to censor the picture and keep it from being seen by the public [source: Day].

But in 2000, photographs taken by a Soviet orbital probe were obtained and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The collection of photos on the FAS Web site show the facility's growth from the late 1960s, including the construction of new buildings and a new runway [source: Federation of American Scientists]. Since then — and especially since the advent of Google Earth — the proverbial cat is pretty much out of the bag.

A dry lake bed called Groom Lake borders the base. To the west is the Nevada Test Site (NTS). The closest town is Rachel, Nev., which is 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of the base. The base itself occupies only a fraction of the more than 90,000 acres (36,000 hectares) it sits on. It consists of a hangar, a guard shack, a few radar antennas, some housing facilities, a mess hall, offices, runways and shelters. The shelters are "scoot and hide" buildings, designed so aircraft can quickly move under cover when satellites pass overhead. Some allege that what you can see on the surface is only a tiny part of the actual facility. They believe that the surface buildings rest on top of a labyrinthine underground base.

Others claim the underground facility has up to 40 levels and that it is attached via underground railways to other sites in Los Alamos, White Sands and Los Angeles. Skeptics are quick to point out that such a massive construction project would require an enormous labor force; the removal of tons of earth that would have to go somewhere and there would be a need for a huge amount of concrete and other construction material. So likely, what you see is what you get.

But nobody in the public really knows for sure, because the government goes to great lengths to conceal what it is doing at Area 51.