Google Earth blocked images over secret Tonopah base for years

Area 51

A 2019 image of Antelope Lake on the Tonopah Test Range appears to obscure details of the site southeast of Tonopah. (Google Earth)

MYSTERY WIRE — It’s been a little over a year since vice.com published its look at the 8 year gap in Google Earth’s imagery of the Tonopah Test Range, informally known as Area 52.

Since then, images from 2014 and 2015 have been added, bringing the gap down to 6 years, from 2008 to 2014. Those images would probably still be missing if not for the probing questions in “The one place in the US Google Earth stopped mapping.”

The mystery surrounding the site southeast of Tonopah just gets more interesting the longer the information stays under wraps, mirroring the circumstances surrounding Area 51 in the late 1980s. Satellite photos revealed details of Area 51 in 2003:

But there hasn’t been much of an explanation offered by Google, private satellite companies or the U.S. government. The public is not privvy to the reasons why views of secret bases are so tightly held, and it’s really unclear how these images stay out of the public eye. Sandia National Labs produced this video in 2017 describing operations on the secluded range.

Vice.com gave Google the opportunity to comment, but didn’t hear back until after the story was published. Google’s answer lacks hard information:

After this article was published, a Google spokesperson told Motherboard the following:

Google Earth didn’t censor this area in Nevada. Our satellite imagery is licensed from third party providers which are commercially available and are not the property of Google. We update imagery by prioritizing areas that are most popular with users while complying with local and federal laws.

The odyssey of tracking how Google gets the satellite imagery makes the article informative, but doesn’t satisfy anyone’s curiosity about how those images are kept out of the public eye once they are collected from satellites.

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