Sunday 1 September 2019

Image from Trump tweet identified as imagery by USA 224, a classified KH-11 ENHANCED CRYSTAL satellite

click to enlarge. image: US Government

The incredibly detailed image above was leaked declassified and revealed to the world by US President Donald Trump, very characteristically in a tweet, on 30 August 2019.

It shows the aftermath of the failed Iranian Safir launch of August 28/29, with considerable damage to the platform and vehicles. Obviously, there was an explosion or crash of some sort, likely an explosion of an engine or rocket stage or failed lift-off.

The image is a photograph of a printed photograph: you can see the reflection of the camera flash on the photographic print near the center of the image and the silhouet of the person photographing it. There is also some image distortion, likely because the print was curling somewhat at the edges. But the level of detail is amazing (and the original might have been even more detailed).

That level of detail quickly led to speculation: what platform took this image? A drone? A high altitude reconnaissance aircraft? A satellite?

Some initially argued that the level of detail was too high for a satellite. But as we will see in this post, it was made by a satellite, and we can even say which satellite.

The level of detail in the image is incredible and points to one of the NRO's classified KH-11 EVOLVED ENHANCED CRYSTAL electro-optical reconnaissance satellites (they are also known as ADVANCED CRYSTAL, KENNEN, and colloquially as 'KeyHole').

These are high resolution optical satellites that resemble the Hubble Space Telescope, but look down to Earth instead of to the heavens. It is known that the optics of these satellites are 2.4-meter diameter mirrors. Theoretically, from the perigee of their orbits this would yield a resolution of just under 10 cm.

Christiaan Triebert analysed the shadow directions on the image and placed the time of the image between 9 and 10 UT (August 29), or 13:30-14:30 local Iranian time. Michael Thompson pointed out on Twitter that one of the KH-11 satellites, USA 224 (2011-002A), made a pass over the launch site in that time window.

This satellite is a classified satellite, but we do know its orbit because amateur trackers track this object regularly. This is USA 224 passing over my hometown Leiden in June 2014 for example:

USA 224 passing over Leiden, 21 June 2014

This blogpost consolidates two analysis which I initially published through Twitter. I will show in this analysis that there is very little doubt that USA 224 took this image.

Matching view angles 

The map below shows how USA 224 passed almost right over the launch site at 9:43:47 UT on August 29, with a maximum elevation of 87.7 degrees. The photograph tweeted by President Trump was taken post culmination, from the location indicated by the white cross in the map above. That position is based on the analysis that now follows.

click map to enlarge

The depicted trajectory for USA 224 is based on amateur tracking data. I used elset 19239.00965638 which was ~2.5 days old at the time of the overflight. In the absence of a manoeuvre, it should be accurate to a few seconds in time along-track and very little error cross-track.

USA 224
1 37348U 11002A   19239.00965638 0.00010600  00000-0  95384-4 0    03
2 37348  97.9000 349.1166 0536016 134.6567 225.3431 14.78336728    04

The imaged launch site itself is located at 35.2346 N, 53.9210 E, altitude 936 m, and indicated by the blue dot in the map. The launch platform is part of Iran's Imam Khomeini Space Port, near Semnan.

click to enlarge. Image: US Government

Trump's image shows the platform viewed under an oblique angle, looking in a northern direction (i.e. with the satellite to the south of the site). As the launch platform is circular, we can use the ellipticity of the platform on the image to estimate the angle under which the platform was imaged. For this, we have to measure the semi-minor and semi-major axis of the ellipse (denoted Y and R in the diagram below): their ratio corresponds to the sinus of the viewing angle.

The result of this measurement is a nominal view angle of 46.03 degrees. For USA 224, this elevation with respect to the imaged site was reached at 09:44:20.7 UT (nominally), post-culmination when the satellite was to the south of the site. From the satellite ephemeris, the satellite was at an azimuth of 194.85 degrees as seen from the imaged site at that moment. The satellite's geographical position was near 33.005 N,  53.220 E at an altitude of  283 km. The range to the imaged site was 385 km.

I used these values as input in STK and simulated the view of the damaged launch platform as seen from USA 224 for 29 August 09:44:20.7 UT. The images below compare the original image from President Trump's tweet (top) and the simulated view from USA 224 (bottom):

click to enlarge

Ignoring the shadow directions, the simulated view is very similar to the actual image, pointing out that indeed the image very likely was taken by the USA 224 satellite.

(the simulated view uses an overhead commercial satellite image taken at another time, rendered to mimic an oblique view, hence the different shadow directions).

Cees Bassa, in an independent analysis, has calculated very similar figures for the viewing angle and from that azimuth and elevation.

Matching times

In a second analysis, I tried to improve on the time of the image derived from the shadow directions.

When projecting a line through the shadow of one of the masts at the edge of the platform, this line passes almost through the middle of the access road at top right in the image:

click to enlarge

I used this observation to measure the direction of the shadow in Google Earth. It corresponds to an approximate azimuth of 40.45 degrees, which would place the sun at an azimuth of about 220.45 degrees (+- 1 degree error or so):

click to enlarge

Looking this direction up in the solar ephemerids for the imaged site (calculated with MICA), this solar azimuth corresponds to 09:46:25 UT (Aug 29). This is only 2 minutes later than the time for which the image best matches the USA 224 view of the site, as reconstructed earlier in this post.

This again confirms that this image could very well have been taken by USA 224. Both the time matches, and the view matches.

With the uncertainties in the shadow direction measurement taken into account (including uncertainties introduced by possible image deformations), within error margins the two times match. The difference between the measured (~220.45) solar azimuth and the solar azimuth calculated for 09:44:21 UT is 0.85 degrees, i.e. under a degree and hence small.

The 09:44:21 UT  derived from matching the satellite view to the image, probably is more accurate than the time derived from the shadow analysis. This time is probably accurate to a few seconds, given that the satellite TLE used was 2.5 days old.


And then the baffling question: why did President Trump tweet an image that otherwise would be considered highly classified?

The KH-11 satellites are classified, and so is imagery from these satellites. If an adversary gets her hands on KH-11 imagery, it reveals information about the optical capacities of these space assets.

In 1984, a Navy intelligence analyst was sent to prison for leaking three KH-11 images to the press.

Reconnaissance satellite imagery made public by the US Government itself over the past decades were either from commercial DigitalGlobe satellites, or purposely degraded in quality such as not to reveal the optical capacities of the KH-11. But now we see a US President tweet, on what appears to be a whim for the purpose of gloating, a very detailed image that as was shown in this post definitely was taken by a KH-11 satellite.

The occassion at which this happened, is eyebrow raising. A failed space launch hardly is a matter of great geopolitical concern. It is something trivial compared to e.g. imagery showing preparations for an invasion, the production of WMD, or atrocities against humanity. The latter could perhaps be argued to be a valid reason to publish imagery that also divulges the capacities of your best space-based imaging platforms: this occasion was not.

Which makes this a rather momentous occasion.

(note: there is a black block in the upper left of the image that seems to be placed there to redact some information that might have been printed there. I think it is likely this information was the time of image, space platform ID and the location of the latter. It points out that some deliberate thought was given to the release of this image, before it was tweeted).

USA 224 passing through Corona Borealis, 17 June 2014

Edit (2 Sep 2019):

In the comments, Russ Calvert makes a very valid point: the phone camera used to photograph the photographic print might also introduce some slant. But I suspect the error introduced this way is small as normally you would try as best as you can to hold the camera perpendicular to the paper you are photographing. A clear slant angle of the camera also would introduce a sharpness gradient that does not seem to be there. The good match between the image and the simulated view from the satellite also bears out that error introduced in this way is likely small.

Edit II (2 Sep 2019): 

Added two archive images of USA 224 passing through the night sky over my hometown Leiden.

Edit III (24 Sep 2019)

Between the infamous 1984 leak by Samuel Moring Lorrison and Trumps 2019 tweet, there was one other occasion that (parts of a) full resolution KH-11 imagery became public. That was an image from the Snowden files published in September 2016 as part of an article in The Intercept,
which according to the annotations on it was taken on 28 January 2009 at 5:16 UT,

I had forgotten about it untill this article by Dwayne Day brought it to my attention again, and then I remembered that I had already identified this image as being taken by USA 129 (1996-072A), a now deorbitted KH-11 reconnaissance satellite.

image source: The Intercept 6 Sept 2016

In 2018 Bill Robinson geolocated the image as showing a part of Zaranj, a southern Afghanistan village on the border with Iran. I in turn was able to show that USA 129 was near this location (see Bill's blog post), in an appropriate position to make the image. As een from the position of USA 129 at 5:16 UT, Zaranj was located at a range of 368 km. Seen from Zaranj, the satellite was in azimuth 216 degrees, elevation 66 degrees at that time.
click map to enlarge


Unknown said...

Excellent analysis. Ridiculous abuse of power.

Anonymous said...

The leak referred to was thirty five years ago. I presume the enhancements are substantial since then. But I recall people saying, during the Cold War, that we didn't have to worry; we have satellites which could read a license plate. IOW, no need for SDI. Not sure why that was supposed to follow.
I guess the question can go two ways; Do we get an advantage when our opponents don't know how good our resources are? Or do we get an advantage when our opponents know how badly they're outclassed?
IOW, have we followed the construction of some underground nuke facilities to the point we know where the ventilation shaft exits? Can we put something into the ventilation shaft? However slick they are, we have them by the shorts. So maybe they should quit bothering.

Russ Calvert said...

The analysis of the eccentricity of the ellipse in the image overlooks the angle at which the original photograph was photographed. The eccentricity of the ellipse in the image is a (rather complex) combination of the angle at which the site was photographed by the satellite and the angle at which the original photograph was photographed.

SatTrackCam Leiden said...

Russ, you make a very valid point. But I suspect the introduced error is small as normally you would aim to keep the camera perpendicular to the paper you are photographing.
the good match between the real image and the simulated satellite view also bears this out.

Manish said...

Fabulous analysis, no doubt! Also, I guess, Trump tweeted a picture of the picture to lower the quality and hide the very facts which you've described in detail. I guess, they need to do better.

mbs said...

So, basically, the information they considered worthy of redaction is the exact information that you and many others were able to ascertain almost instantly? Lol, that’s pretty dope.

Also, nitpicking, but wouldn’t the camera be parallel and not perpendicular to the photograph? Could be wrong, just curious.

Either way, amazing and fascinating work!

stratocruiser said...

" It points out that some deliberate thought was given to the release of this image, before it was tweeted)."
Or that some deliberate thought was given before it was shown to the Tweeter-in-Chief?

Sparrow 7 said...

More abuse from the person who posted this. Now everyone knows what satellite and when thanks for leaking info on that! You just beat the POTUS for dumbass award!

Richard Lewis ll said...

5 year old

Unknown said...

Trump knows exactly what hes doing. He's a genius and has you all fooled. I love it.

Richard Lewis ll said...

Is this a way to inform Putin what we have? Or maybe N. KOREA.Trump cares less about our security more less about Americans and more about what goes into his pocket.

AKA Maureen said...

Sparrow7: Don’t you think that other countries military agencies could do the same thing? It was not necessary for tRumputin to release this unless, as many people say and I think Melania would agree with me, he is a Russian asset

Fred Stam said...

Marco gefeliciteerd met dit artikel, ik begrijp echter een ding niet. Je spreekt over sinus maar je deelt de overstaande rechthoekzijde door de aanliggende,ik heb vroeger geleerd dat dat de tangens is.Sin = overstaande / schuine, cos = aanliggende / schuine rechthoekzijde. Het zal voor de berekening niet veel uitmaken maar ik ben even kwijt wat jouw sinus dan is?Verder top artikel.

CounterPoint said...

The idea that any of this is super secret information is hilarious. You think the Russians, Chinese, AND Iranians don't know about this satellite or what its capabilities are? Get real. And if you think this image is good quality you don't know squat. The satellite in question was launched nearly a decade ago, which means the satellite is older than that, and the technology used to build it older than that. Personally I've seen better imagery on google maps. Trump tweeted this image (after declassifying it) to rub Iran's nose in their little gamble. Now everyone knows they're trying to build ICBM's (while calling it a space vehicle launch... just like the North Koreans did). This helps him sway our allies who have their heads in the sand on Iran. It reveals nothing that's not already known about the satellite (or do you all think you're super duper spies and the first to ever look at a satellite moving around the planet?).

Unknown said...

it's absurd to think this sat. just happened to be in the vicinity exactly at the time of this failed launch without any planning, and total control by NASA or the AF. Iran is acting up again and needs to be wiped off the earth before they wipe out a tiny country in their purview.

Kevin Bostic said...


Sid 6.7 said...

If amateurs can deduce the particulars of this image from readily available, public sources, then a nation-state intelligence apparatus would have no difficulty in arriving at the same conclusions. Nothing in this blog rises to the level of disclosure of national intelligence methods/sources as the original tweet. And just because one might have the ultimate legal right to disclose, doesn't mean one should.

Sid 6.7 said...

Honest question: Does POTUS have a specific procedure to follow when he decides to declassify intelligence products? Or does his tweeting the intelligence automatically constitute declassification? In other words, does he give a verbal and/or written authorization to declassify prior to disclosure, or does the IC find out its declassified only after its been posted?

Interested Amature said...

With regard to the obsevation that Russ Calvert mentioned with regard to the possible angle of the phone used to copy the original image, there is a bright, sort of washed out area in the center of the image which may be a reflection of the flash back into the camera. This would imply, at least to me, the the phone camera(?) that took the picture of the image had to have been near centered over the original image if the brightened area is from a flash relection. My two cents worth at least!

Pieter said...

About that possible angle of the phone... It is easy to take away that effect, by checking the 'squareness' of the text boxes and -if needed- correcting it. The deformation of the picture by the angle of the phone is the same for those boxes as for the rest of the picture.

You can check how big this error is. It seems indeed very small to me.

someone older than thirteen said...

KH-11 satellites were created and launched in the 70's... there's no reasonable person who would believe this gives anything away about the optical capabilities of the United States.

SatTrackCam Leiden said...

Answer to the comment above:
USA 224 was launched in 2011. The KH-11 of today certainly are not the same KH-11 as those of the late seventies - they'll have technological improvements. The KH-11 today are the PRIME optical reconnaissance assets of the NRO. So yes, contrary to your assertion this *does* give information away about the optical capabilities of the United States - as far as we know, there is no better system on orbit.