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Sep 02 2019

There’s A Leak Of Classified Information!

Ever hear of the NRO? Good, you’re not supposed to. The National Reconnaissance Office is more secretive than the NSA and among the things they do is image analysis of Top Secret photos like the one one of the Iranian Missile Base leaked by Unindicted Co-conspirator Bottomless Pinocchio on Twitter the other day.

But you can work the equations both ways and I doubt it would take them, professionals who do this kind of thing every day with the best equipment and fastest computers in the world, more than a moment or 2 to do with 100% certainty what it took these Sky and Tel nerds 2 days to do to 99%. Close enough for horseshoes.

Amateurs Identify U.S. Spy Satellite Behind President Trump’s Tweet
by Geoff Brumfiel, NPR
September 2, 2019

The image almost certainly came from a satellite known as USA 224, according to Marco Langbroek, a satellite-tracker based in the Netherlands. The satellite was launched by the National Reconnaissance Office in 2011. Almost everything about it remains highly classified, but Langbroek says that based on its size and orbit, most observers believe USA 224 is one of America’s multibillion-dollar KH-11 reconnaissance satellites.

“It’s basically a very large telescope, not unlike the Hubble Space Telescope,” Langbroek says. “But instead of looking up to the stars, it looks down to the earth’s surface and makes very detailed images.”

The image tweeted by Trump on Friday, showing the aftermath of an accident at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Space Center, was so detailed that some experts doubted whether it really could have come from a satellite high above the planet.

But a small community of amateur satellite trackers was far more interested in the picture than the words. These individuals use backyard telescopes to watch satellites whizzing across the sky, and they know where most of them are—even classified ones like USA 224. “They’re super bright in the sky and are easy to find,” says Michael Thompson, a graduate student in astrodynamics at Purdue University who spots satellites in his spare time. Once a satellite is seen, it’s relatively easy to work out exactly where it will be at any point in future. “Using math to calculate an orbit is really easy,” he says.

Thompson was one of the first to use an amateur-curated database of known satellites to point the finger at USA 224. He showed it flew over the Iranian space center shortly after the accident.

Langbroek went further still. He was able to reconstruct the picture taken by USA 224 by matching the obliqueness of the circular launch pad in the image tweeted by Trump. His calculation showed that the photo was taken from the vantage of USA 224. Langbroek and another online researcher, Christiaan Triebert, also used shadows cast by towers around the launch pad as sun dials—allowing them to verify the time at which the photo was taken.

Both techniques suggest the pictures were snapped by USA 224, which flew near the site at 2:14 PM local time. “The match was perfect, basically,” Langbroek says.

“When I saw the image, it was so crystal clear and high-resolution that I did not believe it could come from a satellite,” says Melissa Hanham, a satellite imagery expert and deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna, Austria. But she finds the new analysis persuasive. “Given that the satellite is in position at that moment, it’s now very likely that it was [the source of the picture],” she says.

Hanham says she is amazed a satellite can provide such clear imagery. Spy satellites must peer down through earth’s atmosphere, which is a bit like trying to look at objects in the bottom of a swimming pool. They also must snap their pictures while whizzing across the sky. Both effects can blur the fine details in images.

“I’m now scratching my head and curious about how they account for the effects of the atmosphere and motion of the objects,” she says.

And she says she thinks she’s not alone. Others will be trying to use the image to learn more about how USA 224 works. “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,” she says.

Hanham questions whether Trump’s tweet zinging the Iranians was worth the information this image provides to other nations, but she adds: “It’s his decision as the president.”

Sources and methods indeed.

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