A sensitive military intelligence photo of a failed launch at the Iman Khomeini Space Center in Iran was tweeted last week. Based on that picture, a group of amateur satellite trackers was able to figure out how the high-resolution picture was taken.
The group of amateur satellite trackers is located around the country and was able to determine in a short amount of time that the picture was taken using a spy satellite. Upon further investigation, this group of amateur satellite trackers ascertained that it was the USA 224 satellite that took the picture. USA 224 is a National Reconnaissance Office satellite that was launched about eight years ago. There is a lot of speculation when it comes to the USA 224 satellite because everything about this spy program remains classified. However, this didn’t stop the satellite trackers from tracing the tweeted photo back to it.
Christiaan Triebert is a New York Times journalist who is also on the paper’s visual investigation team. Christiaan was able to rely on the shadows in the image to ascertain within an hour about the time that the picture was taken. With this knowledge, Michael Thompson – a Purdue University graduate student in astrodynamics – was able to note that the USA 224 was over the Iranian launch facility.
Marco Langobroek operates an amateur spy satellite tracking station located in the Netherlands. He used this information for carrying out an analysis that helped him locate the location of the satellite at the time that this particular image was captured. He then made use of orbit data from a network of amateur spy satellite trackers for determining the orbital trajectory. Moving forward, he measured the angle at which the satellite was looking at the Iranian launchpad for coming up with the precise location of the satellite.
Cees Bassa is an astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy who had a similar conclusion to Langbroek’s, said, ‘The probability that a drone or high-altitude plane would take a picture at exactly the same time from exactly the same viewing direction is minute. Had the image been released a few days later, it would have been less certain that US 224 had taken the picture, as it could have been taken on more days.’
Langbroek also says, ‘The US DOD has released reconnaissance satellite imagery on a number of occasions, but in all cases, those were deliberately degraded images.’