Spy satellites have been with us since the dawn of the Space Age. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which maintains a database of operational satellites, says that as of March, there were more than 2,000 of the devices in Earth orbit, 176 of which were operated by the U.S. military. (In total, roughly 5,000 satellites are in orbit, most no longer operational.) It’s a good bet that many of those are loaded down with cameras and other sensors used to keep tabs on adversaries.
But while we’ve known about these high-flying cameras for decades, and indeed seen them crop up with usually exaggerated capabilities in spy films, their true powers have been closely guarded secrets. At least, that is, until President Donald Trump on Friday appeared to tweet out an image of an exploded rocket launch facility in Iran taken by a U.S. spy satellite, an image that showed just how good U.S. hardware is at securing crisp, high-resolution images.
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
Trump’s purpose was ostensibly to deflect blame for the blown-up launch pad away from the U.S. But in showing the image—technically a photo of a photo, apparently captured by the president’s own smartphone during a security briefing, as evidenced by a spooky shadow and a flash reflection in the center of the frame—he set off a furious weekend of investigations by amateur satellite sleuths who were able to convincingly prove, by cross-checking known satellite trajectories against shadows and angles in the image, that the shot came from USA 224, one of a series of spaceborne assets known as KH-11 reconnaissance satellites.
As with the secretive X-37B spaceplane program—and most other military programs for that matter—very little is known about the KH-11 series of reconnaissance satellites.
There have been 17 launches of the satellites since the first in 1976. Lockheed Martin builds them, steadily improving their capabilities with each group—or “block”—of satellites, including their sensor systems and their data-download capabilities. The satellites are operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, with the data processed and analyzed by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which typically provides reconnaissance data to U.S. defense and intelligence organizations, including the CIA, FBI, NSA, DOD, and others. The satellites were first codenamed Kennan, but eventually renamed to Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System.
Though satellites are often presumed to be small devices floating around in space, the KH-11s are actually extremely large vehicles. They’re approximately the size of the Hubble Space Telescope, measuring 65 feet long and 10 feet wide, and weighing approximately 40,000 pounds. The bulk of the structure contains a telescope with a 2.4-meter-diameter mirror and a variety of sensors calibrated for Earth observation, rather than the far dimmer objects found in deep space.
This large mirror gives the instruments their fine resolution, enabling them to identify objects just 10cm across. (The image Trump tweeted out likely only hints at the resolution of the actual image, given that it was a print captured by a smartphone and then sent out via Twitter.) One of the satellites was even used to inspect the heat shield on the underside of the Space Shuttle Columbia during its first mission in 1981.
The satellites relay image data to other satellites in orbit, which then transmit it to ground stations in the U.S. But because the satellites are in orbit, they race across the sky at about 18,000 mph and roughly 200 miles altitude. So when they pass over specific locations on Earth, it’s only for a few minutes.
Still, though many reconnaissance missions have been taken over by drones and crewed reconnaissance aircraft, satellites are able to access areas these vehicles cannot, without violating the airspace of other nations.
Trackers on the Hunt
USA 224, the spy satellite apparently responsible for the image President Trump tweeted, launched in January of 2011 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket. From its launch, the satellite and other military equipment in space have been favorite targets for amateur satellite watchers.
After Trump tweeted out the image, Dutch archaeologist and space vehicle tracker Marco Langbroek, New York Times visual investigator Christiaan Triebert, and others were able to narrow down the likely source based on the calculations derived from the image itself.
I simulated the view from USA 224 (ADVANCED CRYSTAL optical reconnaissance satellite) towards the #Iranian launch platform. Simulation is for 09:44:23 UT when sat was at 43.97 deg elevation, azimuth 194.7 deg.— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) August 31, 2019
Simulation & real image compared:@mhanham @trbrtc @nktpnd @cgbassa pic.twitter.com/qURATXpfuU
The researchers focused on the oblique angle of the circular launch pad and the shadows of the towers to determine the angle from which the camera photographed the scene. The shadow angles also helped them narrow down the time of day. The results precisely matched the view and timing of the passing of USA 224 above the site, with only slight margins of error in their calculations.
This release of the image by Trump startled the intelligence community—not only is the hardware classified, but so are its images—and it reveals the approximate capabilities of the U.S. spy satellite network. As a result, the president’s move set off fierce debate about whether it was strategic or a simple gaffe that might have ultimately compromised the intelligence agency’s work.
Images from KH-11 satellites have only been released a handful of times in their nearly 50-year history, twice by individuals eventually convicted of espionage. Those who managed the briefing are probably at least grateful they didn’t email the president the original images.