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Web Site For Mysterious "Area 51" Photos Crashes
By Andrew Quinn

SAN FRANCISCO, April 18 (Reuters) - Perhaps the aliens pulled the plug.

A U.S. company's move to post Russian spy satellite photos of "Area 51," the mysterious U.S. Air Force test site in Nevada, on the Internet prompted a Web meltdown on Tuesday as UFO buffs jammed its computers looking for insights into one of the world's most enduring real-life X-Files.

"We are being overwhelmed by the level of traffic that is hitting us," David Mountain, marketing director for Aerial Images Inc., said on Tuesday. "We are in the process of getting some additional hardware online to cope. ... The interest has really been phenomenal."

Aerial Images of Raleigh, North Carolina, sparked the frenzy on Monday when it began posting five images of the Nevada site on its Web site, http://www.terraserver.com .

The photos, taken in 1998 by a satellite launched by the Russian agency Sovinformsputnik, show the barren desert region about 75 miles (120 km) northwest of Las Vegas, complete with airfields, outbuildings and bomb craters from U.S. nuclear tests in the 1950s.

"There is a surprising number of discrete facilities out there in the middle of nowhere," Mountain said.

SPAWNING GROUND FOR THEORIES

Area 51, officially the Groom Dry Lake Air Force Base, has for years been a favorite focal point for conspiracy theorists, alien abduction enthusiasts and probers of the paranormal.

Long a testing ground for top secret U.S. aircraft, ranging from the U-2 spy plane to the B-2 stealth bomber, the base was dubbed Area 51 after its designation on bomb-testing maps.

So shrouded in secrecy that the U.S. Air Force only recently admitted to its existence, the base is believed by some to be a repository for wreckage from UFOs that is supposedly being studied by the U.S. military.

In Washington on Tuesday, Defense Department officials once again were forced to deny that military scientists were up to anything otherworldly deep in the Nevada desert.

"We have a right as a sovereign nation -- in fact, a responsibility to the citizens of the United States -- to develop various weapons from time to time. Sometimes these weapons are developed in classified locations. And we have several locations where we do this, as do a number of other countries in the world," Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said in response to a reporter's question.

"I think I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have no classified program that relies on aliens from outer space."

Satellite photographs of the area have been taken before. But Aerial Images says the new pictures -- taken after a 1994 presidential order allowing such space photography to be made public -- provide some of the clearest and highest-resolution ones to date.

COMPANY COMPUTERS SWAMPED

Mountain said that as the first word of the Area 51 photos began to filter out over the Internet, traffic at the company's servers started to spike.

When the "CBS Evening News" mentioned them on Monday evening, company computers were swamped. By late on Tuesday, the Aerial Images site was still down, leaving technicians struggling to get the coveted pictures back on line.

"This is a little embarrassing for us. We are out in front of the public, and we're not able to handle the traffic that is coming at us," Mountain said, adding that the site was getting more than 10 times its normal number of hits.

He added, however, that the surge in interest was not unexpected, since Area 51 had long been at the top of the list of items sought by customers for Aerial Images' database of satellite photography.

"Since we've been in this business, the single most commonly requested site has been Area 51," he said. "There had been a lot of speculation that the government was not allowing us to put it up. That's not the case. ... We've never had any government interference."

While word of the Area 51 pictures kept the Internet abuzz on Tuesday, reaction was distinctly cooler in two quarters that might seem natural constituencies for fresh news about the shadowy base.

Mountain said television director Chris Carter, who helped push Area 51 mania into the mainstream through his popular conspiracy show "The X-Files," was unimpressed when Aerial Images approached him with news about the new imagery.

"He didn't believe we had it," Mountain said.

Doubts were also voiced at the Area 51 Research Center on the base's doorstep in Rachel, Nevada.

"We haven't seen 'em," said a man who answered the telephone on Tuesday at the yellow trailer housing the unofficial research center. "It's not such a big thing. Who knows where these photographs are coming from?"

 
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