The President of the United States has tweeted an American spy satellite image. After some investigating, astronomers were able to exactly figure out which satellite it came from viz. a previously top-secret satellite labeled USA 224, an optical reconnaissance satellite.
President Trump’s tweet unwittingly exposed some of the capabilities of American satellite imagery. USA 224 was kept top-secret for national security reasons so understandably the Intelligence Community is probably not very happy about this revelation.
Iran and the USA share a fractious relationship going back decades. The USA blames Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and of sponsoring terrorism while Iran alleges that the USA is sponsoring terrorism by supporting Israel with billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech weaponry.
It was bit calm when Iran signed a deal under President Obama limiting their nuclear technologies in exchange for a respite from economic sanctions. Bust after taking office, Trump scrapped that deal. Since then, relations between the USA and Iran have heated up again.
Iran has allegedly been developing launch capabilities for years now. They were testing rockets at their Imam Khomeini Spaceport in norther Iran when at the end of August, a failed launch attempt on the pad was detected by America. Unclassified satellite images exposed a plume of smoke rising from the facility and not much else.
But Trump wanted to make a point, so he tweeted this:
The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One. pic.twitter.com/z0iDj2L0Y3
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 30, 2019
It seems that the President was briefed with a print of this classified image, and that he possibly took a picture with his phone and tweeted it. The camera flash in the middle of the image is visible. Almost instantly, people were rightly concerned that he had revealed US surveillance capabilities while others wondered what the big deal was. The image itself doesn’t seem to reveal much, on the surface. But this has given way to a big problem.
Astronomers are smart and resourceful. A Dutch astronomer named Marco Langbroek started investigating the source of Trump’s satellite image and revealed his findings in tweets of his own:
I measured the semi-major and semi-minor axes of the ellipse (the obliguely viewed circular platform). The viewing angle is then derived by minor=major*cos(angle) –> so find the matching angle. That yielded nominal 43.97 deg. That value matches 09:44:23 UT and azimuth 194.7.
— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) August 31, 2019
So the position of the satellite at 09:44:23 was taken, and in STK I let the viewq from the satellite point towards the launch platform. That yielded this. It is a very good match so there is no doubt in my mind that it is an image taken by USA 224. pic.twitter.com/R4XGdnzPis
— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) August 31, 2019
In an interview with NPR, Langbroek defined USA 224 as a large telescope “not unlike the Hubble Space Telescope. But instead of looking up to the stars, it looks down to the Earth’s surface and makes very detailed images.”
In reality, USA 224 is a powerful, high-tech piece of equipment that cost billions of dollars to build and has a 2.4-meter mirror, similar in size as the Hubble’s. It is a KH-11 satellite and the 15th satellite of its kind. It’s also referred to as the “Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System” and code-named Key Hole.
A feature of USA 224 and its ilk is that they’re easy to track in the sky.
In a blog post at SatTrackCom, Langroek described how the shadows in the image were combined with its location to compute the time the image was taken. Then, thatdata was compared with the known track of spy satellites to confirm that the image was taken by USA 224.
Then Cees Bassa, a professional astronomer at ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy took over. He correctly determined the resolution of the image, and the capabilities of USA 224 itself.
Google Earth shows that the launch pad is about 60m in diameter, while the launch pad is about 600 pixels wide in the picture. That suggests a resolution of at least 10cm per pixel, as the original image could have had a higher resolution. pic.twitter.com/T7O76Mu5X4
— Cees Bassa (@cgbassa) August 30, 2019
Even satellite imagery experts are surprised by the detail in the image.
In an interview with NPR, Melissa Hanham of the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna said, “… I did not believe [the image] could come from a satellite. I imagine adversaries are going to take a look at this image and reverse-engineer it to figure out how the sensor itself works and what kind of post-production techniques they’re using.”
Usually, there’s a certain moderation to intelligence gathering and surveillance. Countries prefer to keep their capabilities secret, sharing information with allies only when needed, and obfuscating and denying to their rivals. Details of USA 224’s capabilities, mission, and orbit were classified till this expose’.
Unfortunately, Trump has revealed one of USA’s cutting-edge spy capabilities, and some data does seem striking.
The image in question has a much higher definition than everything the US has admitted to in the past. Nations had probably guessed that the US possessed advanced satellite imaging, but now it is evident. In the high-stakes game of international intelligence and espionage this capability is critical.
Also, revelation of security secrets is a crime. Back in 1984, an intelligence analyst working at the Naval Intelligence Support Center sent three classified images from the KH-11 spy satellite to the Jane’s Fighting Ships publication. The analyst, Samuel Loring Morison, was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, though he was later pardoned.
As President, Trump won’t face any charges though as he apparently has the ‘absolute right’ to reveal such things.