Area 51: What is it and what goes on there?

Area 51 sign on fence in the Nevada Desert.
Area 51 is synonymous with tales of UFOs, government cover-ups and potentially testing alien technology. (Image credit: mrdoomits via Getty Images)

Located at Groom Lake in the middle of the barren desert of southern Nevada, Area 51 is a U.S Air Force installation that has become infamous for a speculated connection with unidentified flying objects (UFOs). 

Conspiracy theories surrounding the base suggest that it is used for the testing of alien technology recovered from supposed crash sites, like the famous one in Roswell, New Mexico. This has been fueled by the fact that the base was a secret for many years and is still inaccessible to the general public. 

As a result, this innocuous-looking military installation has become an intrinsic part of the modern mythology and urban legends of the 20th century, with a large influence on media and pop culture. 

Related: The search for alien life 

Where is Area 51 and how big is it?

Area 51 is located 120 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, near the small towns of Rachel and Hiko. The title "Area 51" seems to come from the designation the base had on Atomic Energy Commission maps, with this name sticking in the mind of the public but mostly unused by the military.

Established in 1955 as part of the Nevada Test and Training Range complex, the area was also given the name "Paradise Ranch" in an attempt by aerospace company Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) to draw employees to the base.

Today, the base and the wider Nevada Test and Training Range complex are part of the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), with the CIA referring to it as the Groom Lake and Homey Airport. Though satellite imagery of the site had been restricted, since 2018 the base has been visible on Google Maps. 

Area 51 is situated 120 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, near the small towns of Rachel and Hiko. (Image credit: miroslav_1 via Getty Images)

Benjamin Radford is an American folklorist, writer, investigator and skeptic who's authored more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries;" "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore;" and "Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment." He's also deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and has written several articles regarding the conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51.

"The base itself is fairly small, but the restricted area around it is over 90,000 acres [36,000 hectares]  —  partly to prevent prying eyes and partly because they need to test classified aircraft," Radford told "It's mostly conspiracy theorists and media who call it Area 51. To the U.S. government, it's simply the Nevada Test and Training Range, part of Edwards Air Force Base."

What is in Area 51 and what is it used for?

The U.S military finally acknowledged the existence of Area 51 in 2013 after a formerly classified CIA document detailing the history of the U-2 spy plane was obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

But that acknowledgment doesn't mean that a visit to the base is advisable. Radford said that there are still legitimate government and military reasons for keeping the base's activities secret.

"The military classifies Area 51 as a 'Military Operating Area.' On the ground, you'll encounter stern signs and armed guards patrolling the fenced perimeters guarded by buried motion sensors, cameras, guards and so on  —  plus signs warning that deadly force is authorized," Radford explained. "The borders of Area 51 are not fenced but are marked with orange poles and warning signs."

Such signs tell visitors that photos aren't allowed and that trespassing on the property will result in a fine, he added.

The restricted area ar Area 51's covers over 90,000 acres (36,000 hectares)   (Image credit: Roger Holden via Getty Images)

Originally used as a testing site for the U-2 spy plane, the base would go on to be used for the testing of other well-known aircraft such as the Archangel-12, the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.

Gallery: Declassified US spy satellite photos & designs 

How did Area 51 come to be associated with UFOs?

The testing of new and secretive military aircraft is likely responsible for much of the connection between Area 51 and UFOs, especially when considering that the term "UFO" doesn't directly refer to alien spacecraft, despite how it is often perceived in pop culture. 

"It's true that strange lights and aircraft can sometimes be spotted in the area, so it's an obvious leap to UFOs, but of course, new aircraft might look identical," Radford explained. "The basic, flawed premise behind the Area 51 mythology can be boiled down to this: The government won't reveal what's going on there, so it must be something ultra-super-amazingly secret."

What we call Area 51, he added, is only one of many military bases, national laboratories and government scientific research centers across the country that deal with classified  — even Top Secret  — information, and where workers and visitors need security clearances.

"There's no reason to think that anything UFO-related is going on," Radford said.

Tourism around Area 51 is popular with space and UFO enthusiasts. Here you can find numerous alien-themed hotels, bars and souvenir shops.   (Image credit: Susan Vineyard via Getty images)

Aside from the sightings of strange craft, Area 51 mythology was enforced in 1989 when a man named Robert Lazar claimed that he worked on extraterrestrial technology inside the base. 

Lazar told Las Vegas television reporter George Knapp that he had viewed autopsy photographs of aliens inside Area 51 and that the US government used the facility to examine recovered alien spacecraft. Lazar himself was discredited, but his claims resulted in numerous government conspiracy theories, most of which involve extraterrestrial life.

"A lot of the legend has been fueled by hoaxers like Robert Lazar, who appeared in the 1980s telling a story to TV stations that he worked there and saw alien bodies and crashed flying saucers first-hand," Radford recalled. "It got a lot of attention, but it was later revealed that he fabricated not only his employment at Nellis [Air Force Base in southern Nevada] but indeed his entire background. Almost nothing of what he said was true."

Lazar had set the ball rolling, however. No matter how fallacious the rumors of alien tech and Area 51 were, the connection was cemented into the public consciousness and pop culture.

Related: UFOs and UAP: History, sightings and mysteries

Area 51 in pop culture

Area 51 is located near State Route 375. The Extraterrestrial Highway is a popular route for UFO enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike. (Image credit: LPETTET via Getty Images)

Aside from the host of documentaries made about Lazar and the Area 51 UFO connection, the base has become a popular location in more overtly fictional movies and TV shows.

Perhaps one of the most widely viewed interpretations of Area 51 appeared in the 1996 Will Smith blockbuster "Independence Day." In the Roland Emmerich-directed movie, which grossed over $817 million US worldwide at the box office, the base plays a crucial role in defeating an invading alien menace

On the small screen, Area 51 was host to a special prisoner in a 2011 episode of "Doctor Who." The time-traveling Doctor was held captive at the base during the sixth-season episode "Day of the Moon."

Given the fact that it is a show based on aliens, conspiracy theories and government cover-ups, it's little wonder that Area 51 eventually made it onto "The X-Files." In the 1998 season-six episode entitled "Dreamland" —  also an early name given to the base  —  Mulder and Scully witness the flight of a mysterious craft at the facility.

And Area 51 became part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in season seven of "Agents of Shield," appearing in two episodes of the show and getting a mention in a third. The base was also mentioned by Spider-Man antagonist J. Jonah Jameson's publication The Daily Bugle in a series of video packages as part of the viral marketing for the film "Spider-Man: No Way Home" at the end of 2021.

The Daily Bugle reports referenced a "failed raid" on Area 51 by people, who aimed to discover evidence of alien life. More than a million people were supposed to conduct the raid, but only a handful actually showed up — a clear case of art imitating life. 

The Storm Area 51 movement

In 2019, what started as a prank on social media almost got very out of hand when 3.5 million people expressed interest in attending an event organized by 20-year-old Matty Roberts, a student from Bakersfield, California.

The name of the tongue-in-cheek Facebook event was "Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us," and, as the name suggests, the supposed plan was to charge at the base in large enough numbers to overwhelm security. The aim was to uncover putative secrets like alien technology and secretive research. 

In the end, an estimated 6,000 people made it to the low-key summer event and partook in some activities like hatchet-throwing and drinking limited-edition alien-themed Bud Light beer. Area 51's light security was not challenged, however. 

"It began as a joke, but some people took it seriously and began planning to actually … well, it's not clear what, but hang out near the entrance and have fun," Radford said. "The tiny town of Rachel braced for huge crowds and a music festival that never happened."

"It was a huge fiasco, a smaller-scale Fyre Festival for the alien crowd," he said.

Additional resources

Explore the history of the U-2 spy plane program with Lyon Air Museum. Read more about UFO hoaxster Bob Lazar with How Stuff Works. Discover the many Area 51 pop culture references in this YouTube video from KTNV Channel 13 Las Vegas


Area 51 Fast Facts, CNN, [2021].

Area 51,

Area 51, 37°14'06.0"N 115°48'40.0"W, Google Maps.

Area 51, Britannica.

Explore the conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51, Britannica

Independence Day, The Numbers. 

Doctor Who, Season 6 Episode 2, Day of the Moon, IMDB

X-Files, Season 6 Episode 4, Dreamland, IMDB.

Area 51, Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki

Storm Area 51: The joke that became a 'possible humanitarian disaster,' BBC News, 2019.

Frank. A., "Storm Area 51" weekend had neither raids nor aliens. But it wasn't a bust," Vox, 2019. 

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.