Censored Craft Near Hangar Appears In Satellite Image Of Secretive Tonopah Test Range Airport

The storied base that has hosted many top-secret programs seems to have had its picture taken at an inopportune time, a mistake that was fixed later.

Google Earth

Tonopah Test Range Airport has deep roots in clandestine air operations. From housing America's captured Soviet fighter force during the Cold War, to being the home of the F-117 during the program's top-secret operational years, with the type later returning there for its peculiar post-retirement era, the base has captured the imaginations of aerospace aficionados, albeit to a lesser degree than its sprawling and even more remote and guarded neighbor to the south, Area 51

In recent years, the base is known to have hosted RQ-170 Sentinel stealth reconnaissance drones, as well as foreign air defense systems and other weaponry. It also serves as a launch site for testing upgrades made to special operations aircraft among other functions. Even successors of the Army's 'Stealth Hawk' helicopters are rumored to operate from the installation and there has been much speculation that advanced unmanned systems, namely unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAVs), currently call the base home. The reality is that if anywhere is going to support a small force of highly classified but operational aircraft, it's Tonopah.

Just as the F-117 lived in total darkness at the base for nearly a decade, most of what is flying out of there now is also very likely to use the cloak of night to ensure its own anonymity. That's why it's very peculiar to come upon the satellite imagery posted at the top of this article and below. The image is apparently part of a recent update to Google Earth and other mapping sites. It shows a craft sitting just outside one of the end hangars that make up the rows of 54 similar hangars arrayed across the north side of the base, also referred to as 'canyons' in Tonopah and F-117 vernacular. 

Bing Maps

The image is interesting on two levels. First off, what exactly are we looking at? It's hard to tell, but it certainly looks like an aircraft. To us it resembles a flying wing and is very similar to the RQ-170's planform. The light color would also match. The only difference is that this aircraft appears to have a wingspan approaching 80 feet, which is significantly larger than that of the RQ-170. So in that sense, this aircraft would be somewhere between an RQ-170 and the P175 Polecat in terms of proportions. This is the size of vehicle that we have posited to have existed for some time—a 'Super Sentinel' of sorts that is capable of performing strike and electronic attack missions. 

The openings to the southern portion of canyon hangars at Tonopah are roughly 90 feet wide, so they can accommodate a fairly large flying-wing drone. But once again, although we can guess, it's impossible to assign an exact ID to the vehicle. As to why brings us to the second major reason why this image is significant—it has been edited.

The photo, dated October 1st, 2017 and attributed to Digital Globe, has clearly been touched-up to conceal the details of the aircraft seen in front of the hangar. Usually, personnel at sites that work with sensitive hardware like secret aircraft are very aware of the schedules of imaging satellites that pass overhead. Test schedules and even the movement of an aircraft from one hangar to another can be dictated by the satellites' predictable orbital paths. But no system is perfect and the need to conceal test articles or even semi-operational aircraft from overhead view is also dictated by the sensitivity of the asset. We have no idea what exactly happened here, but clearly, corrective action was taken after the satellite's shutter had snapped open and close.

Interestingly enough, another satellite image that was taken in July of 2016 also shows indications of being doctored to conceal an aircraft sitting in front of the same hangar. In this case, the anomaly looks like it could be a MiG-29. The extrapolated wingspan of that blurry craft matches the Soviet era twin-engined fighter. Still, this is just a guess, as there is very little visual information to work off of.

Google Earth

The RQ-170 has been photographed in satellite imagery before. I actually wrote a post on just that back in 2015. But when it comes to images of Tonopah Test Range Airport on Google Earth, photos that were in the system seemed to have dropped off. Including ones that show a UH-60 Black Hawk around a hangar that has shown a lot of activity in recent years. But never before have we seen what appears to be a unique aircraft deliberately blurred in an image.

These revelations come as Motherboard has published a big story accusing Google of altering its mapping practices for national security reasons and in particular omitting updates of the range area just south of Tonopah Test Range Airport, which the contractor Sandia Corporation operates on behalf of Sandia National Laboratories. We have Motherboard's claims to be dubious at best and that area is not that secretive at all. It is primarily where nuclear bomb shapes are tested, but it also supports a rolling set of diverse tests for a range of 'customers.' Sandia has publicized the area's purpose extensively even in their own video productions

Initially, Motherboard's piece claimed that there had been no updated imagery of the area in question within the Tonopah Test Range between 2008 and 2017. After publication, the authors added an update to note that Google had at some point added historical images of 'the gap' for both 2014 and 2015.

“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,” a Google spokesperson subsequently told Motherboard, as well. “We update imagery by prioritizing areas that are most popular with users while complying with local and federal laws.”

It’s true that if you plug in the map coordinates the authors provided, 37o41'6.39"N, 116o39'57.31"W, it does indeed bring you to a location and altitude where there is only imagery for 2007, 2014, 2015, and 2017. However, the story includes a picture of a much broader area with the caption “The Tonopah Gap.” This picture appears to reflect what you’d see from an altitude of approximately 8.7 miles up in Google Earth. Again, for this particular position, there are only previous images of that location for 2007, 2014, 2015, and 2017.

Google Earth

The central location of the "Tonopah Gap" as described in the Motherboard article.

However, if you zoom out less than a mile more, there is historical imagery of very similar resolution of the same area for every year since 2007. In addition, while the “gap” the authors of the Motherboard piece identified at the dry lake bed might have been the longest, a cursory look at other locations around the Tonopah Test Range Airport show that there is similarly absent imagery at various altitudes between 2007 and 2016. If you explore the imagery well outside of the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range, which encompasses Tonopah, you'll find similar 'gaps' in the utterly mundane and largely desolate Nevada desert. 

This would make sense and lends weight to the statement from Google that it updates Google Earth's imagery library based on its understanding of user demand. It also further calls into question whether there is any particular significance to the absence of imagery, and only at certain altitudes, of the dry lake beds near Tonopah. There’s no clear indication that Google avoided that particular area specifically or deliberately. 

Google Earth

This innocuous piece of the Nevada Desert, at the coordinates 37o39'44.60"N, 117o08'12.39"W, situated 20 miles west of the "Tonopah Gap" has no imagery between 2006 and 2010, between 2010 and 2013, or between 2013 and 2016. This equals 8 years of missing imagery since 2006, the same total that is absent from Google's library for the dry lake southeast of the Tonopah Test Range Airport.  

Still, it is possible that there is some sort of censorship going on, as we also know that Google and/or its image providers have clearly censored specific locales in far more obvious ways, but it is more likely that they have not obtained or uploaded images of those particular areas for more benign reasons, as the company said in its statement. The team behind Google Earth was able to backfill images of the area in question without any apparent issue and it’s possible that they will add more shortly given the likely increase in interest in the area. 

The Motherboard piece does go into some detail about how entire images are kept from the public. This is either through 'shutter control,' asking companies to not photograph an area at all, or via 'buy-and-deny,' wherein the U.S. Government buys exclusive rights to images and then sits on them. The United States has reportedly never once ordered an imagery provider to use shutter control. 

Regardless, none of these mechanisms explains how individual objects get obscured or blurred in the images that do get released. That issue has been of major interest dating back to when the game-changing web tool was launched well over a decade ago. 

Google spokesperson Deanna Yick told Mashable the following back in 2012:

"The satellite and aerial imagery in Google Earth and Google Maps is sourced from a wide range of both commercial and public sources... These third-party providers are required to follow the law of the countries in which they operate, so some of them may blur images and then supply us with those images.

...

We strive to publish the best data possible, and take into account many elements when determining which imagery is optimal, such as imagery date, resolution and clarity... We receive updated information from our data providers from time to time, and if those updates improve the imagery of the area based on all of those quality elements, we may elect to publish that updated imagery even if the provider has blurred certain regions of the image."

So the real story here doesn't appear to be located on the dry lakebed to the south Tonopah Test Range Airport, but instead at the airport itself where there is real evidence that images have been manipulated to obscure sensitive objects. If anything else, the doctored images of Tonopah Test Range Airport add more evidence to the fact that the base remains highly active when it comes to supporting operations of sensitive if not top-secret aircraft.

Contact the authors: tyler@thedrive.com and jtrevithickpr@gmail.com