Thinking Tech

China's Area 51? Mysterious site spotted from space

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Satellite photos from Google Earth show massive structures that appear designed for a military purpose.

There was a time when a remote desert was the perfect spot for covert operatives to carry out all sorts of weird, elaborate government schemes. But in the age of satellite technology, you never know who's watching.

Case in point was the discovery last week of massive and mysterious man-made structures that appear as scribbled white lines from outer space. Satellite photos from Google Earth pinpoint the coordinates at a location in Dunhuang, Jiuquan, Gansu, in the Gobi Desert. The site, which covers a mile long expanse of land and 3,000 feet in width, is reportedly in close proximity to the headquarters of China's space program and an old Chinese nuclear test site.

Almost immediately after the image surfaced on the tech site Gizmodo, more snapshots of nearby sites erected in the shape of strange geometric patterns began to crop up, setting off a snowball of speculation as to what the heck they were seeing. Subtracting some of the more imaginative explanations such as a concerted attempt to communicate with space aliens, most guesses pointed to some kind of Chinese military operation.

Paul Marks, New Scientist's tech correspondent says:

My money's on it being a target practice range for the People's Liberation Army.

Why? One of the other formations gives the game away: looking tantalisingly like Stonehenge from a great height, zooming in reveals three aircraft sitting at it's heart. Clearly, it is some kind of military target for airstrike or gunnery practice. Another 4 x 4 piece grid some 200 metes across has some pieces clearly blown to smithereens, again supporting the target practice theory, and a dummy runway in garish bluish-white is probably not for style-conscious aliens but air-to-ground strafing practice.

However, there is always the chance the Google maps have been hacked and that these "structures" are mere overlays, inserted through digital skulduggery and intended to keep conspiracy theorists happy for weeks. The 21st century version of crop circles, in other words.

Skeptic Benjamin Radford at Discovery News concurs:

At this point no one really knows for sure, but the most likely explanation is that it's a military target practice range. It is in fact only one of several similar sites in the area, and at least one of the others has airplanes sitting in the center of it.

The Telegraph even got a defense expert named Tim Ripley to give an assessment:

Tim Ripley, a defence expert from Jane's Defence Weekly, compared the structures to similar grids in Area 51, the secret United States military test base in Nevada. "The picture of the circle looks very like a missile test range, with target and instrumentation set out to record weapon effects. The Americans have lots of these in Nevada – Area 51!" he said.

Here are some more photos of structures around the site. What do you think they are?

(via Gizmodo)

Images: Google Earth

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure