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“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 the Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range.
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. The area’s hangars also are thought to harbor Soviet-style aircraft borrowed, bought or stolen for further study. There have been more dramatic claims as well, to the effect that technologies from alien civilizations are being studied there. Such is the stuff of TV shows like “The X-Files” and movies like “Independence Day.”
More on Area 51
• See the pictures at the TerraServer Web site
• Local news coverage from Raleigh’s WNCN-TV
The pictures released Monday by TerraServer.com didn’t provide any smoking guns for the conspiracy theorists, but there were 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.
The company said Internet users could view the photos for free, and purchase the digital files at prices starting at $7.95. But that assumed you could connect with the Web site in the first place.
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The pictures could be easily viewed Monday evening, just before the publicity hit full force. However, by Tuesday the Terraserver site was virtually inaccessible, and the situation didn’t improve until Thursday.
“It seems very suspicious,” one Internet user wrote Wednesday in an e-mail message to MSNBC. “I hope it’s just that the server couldn’t handle the traffic and not the military shutting it down.”
At first, TerraServer spokesman David Mountain said the meltdown was merely due to high traffic, rising to 10 times normal levels. But on Thursday, Mountain said there was another factor: “We were subject to a hacker attack.”
As early as Tuesday, Hoffman had hinted that a denial-of-service attack might have played a role in the Web traffic jam, but Mountain said it took until Thursday to confirm the nature of the attack. In a denial-of-service scenario, the attackers do not actually gain access to files on the computer server; rather, they flood the Web server with so much data that the site stumbles.
Mountain said online security measures were beefed up to counter the attack, and “there is an investigation ongoing.” But he declined to provide more details.
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