The US President did it again.
Just when you think things can no longer become … "unusual" – in the White House, the president tweeted an American spy satellite image as part of an underage jab of the Iranian leadership. After some warming, astronomers were able to figure out which satellite was coming from: (formerly) a top-secret satellite called USA 224, an optical intelligence satellite.
Trump's tweet inadvertently revealed some of the capabilities of US satellite imagery. US 224 is kept secret for national security reasons, so the intelligence community is probably not very happy about it. Why are you opening up your intelligence gathering capabilities to your adversaries, including Iran itself?
Iran and the United States have a capricious relationship that goes back decades. The US accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism. Iran accuses the United States of sponsoring terrorism by supplying billions of dollars of high-tech weapons to Israel.
Things calmed down when Iran signed the Obama deal, restricting its nuclear technologies in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. When he was elected, Trump terminated that deal. Since then, things between the US and Iran have warmed again.
Iran has been developing launch capabilities for years. They're testing missiles at their Imam Khomeini spaceport in northern Iran. In late August, the launch attempt failed on the pad. Unclassified satellite images show plenty of smoke rising from the facility, and not much more.
But Trump likes to bring his pockets, so he tweets this:
It seems that Trump was aware of a thumbnail of this classified image and that he took a photo with his phone and tweeted it. You can see the camera flash in the middle of the image. Immediately, people were concerned that he had uncovered surveillance opportunities in the US.
Some people wondered what the big deal was. The image does not seem to reveal much on its surface. But it's problematic and that's why:
Astronomers are smart people. Much smarter and more resourceful than Trump can suspect. A Dutch astronomer by the name of Marco Langbrook started working on a satellite image of Trump and revealed his findings in his own tweets:
In an interview with NPR, Langbrook described US 224 as a large telescope "not unlike the Hubble Space Telescope. But instead of looking at the stars, he looks down at the earth and makes very detailed images. “USA 224 is a powerful, high-tech equipment that costs billions of dollars to build. It has a 2.4 meter mirror, the same size as the Hubble
USA 224 is what is called the KH-11 satellite. This is the 15th satellite of its kind. Also called "Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System" codenamed Key Hole.
The thing about USA 224 and satellites like it is that they are easy to follow in the sky. In a blog post on SatTrackCom, Langroek explained how shadows in an image are combined with its location to find the time to capture the image. This was then compared to the famous spy track to confirm that the photo was US 224.
Then Cees Bassa started working. Bassa is a professional astronomer at ASTRON, the Dutch Institute for Radio Astronomy. It was able to determine the resolution of the image and the capabilities of US 224.
The detail in the image is surprising even for satellite imaging professionals. In an interview with NPR, Melissa Hanham of the Vienna Open Nuclear Network said, "… I did not believe that
There is usually some sobriety about intelligence gathering and surveillance. Nations love to keep their capabilities secret, sharing them with allies only when needed, and reflect and deny their adversaries. Details of the capabilities, mission and orbit of US 224 have been classified.