As if there wasn’t already enough evidence that the President should think before he tweets, Trump recently gave away secret details about an American spy satellite. Following an alleged rocket failure in Iran, he tweeted a photo of the site along with a claim that the U.S. was not involved in the accident.
Though it doesn’t seem like much, this image gave Dutch astronomer Marco Langbroek enough information to make some surprising conclusions. With a whole bunch of math and a little bit of reasoning, Langbroek deduced not only what spy satellite took the picture but that it also takes far clearer images than previously thought.
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
Paging Dr. Langbroek
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this incident is that it was simple enough for an amateur astronomer to figure out which satellite took the photo using fairly simple techniques. Langbroek describes, in detail, his process in a blog post.
Basically, he used some high school level trigonometry to determine the satellite’s viewing angle. This is possible since the launch platform is a circle but appears as an ellipse in the image (which, yes, is a picture of a picture).
With a few other calculations, Langbroek was able to almost certainly determine that the image was taken by the USA 224 spy satellite. He even compared the original image with a simulated view from the satellite. The images are almost identical.
However, Langbroek isn’t the only astronomer to deduce the information. Several of his colleagues have also worked the problem and arrived at very similar conclusions. Of course, all of this goes to say that the President’s tweet did, indeed, give away sensitive information.
What is USA 224?
If Langbroek’s calculations are correct (and they certainly seem to be) then the image was likely snapped by USA 224. The top-secret military reconnaissance satellite belongs to the extremely powerful KH-11 class. USA 224 is a piece of sophisticated tech costing almost $2 billion.
Though the satellites are visible in the night sky and are trackable to some degree, their build is highly unknown. Until now.
Previously, experts believed that the best satellites in orbit could take photos at resolutions of 30 centimeters per pixel. However, the level of detail in Trump’s image suggests that the KH-11 class spy satellite captures images at a shocking 10 centimeters per pixel.
Langbroek comments on this in his blog post, “The level of detail in the image is incredible. These are high-resolution optical satellites that resemble the Hubble Space Telescope, but look down to Earth instead of to the heavens.”
Ultimately, the revelation of such information could harm the U.S. in the future. Enemies and competing nations could use the image to reverse-engineer KH-11 style technology for their own purposes. It is also a stark reminder that social media isn’t the best platform for Presidential communications.
As the saying that middle schoolers are taught goes, “think before you post,” because once you hit send, that content is on the internet forever.