Donald Trump Tweets KH-11 Spy Satellite Image

Yesterday, President Trump tweeted an annotated image of the Iranian launch site where an explosion apparently destroyed a satellite launch vehicle during launch preparations.

Here is the image at higher resolution (click for maximum resolution).

Iran SLV launch site from Trump tweet

Earlier, Planet captured an image shortly after the accident from one of their constellation of “Dove” microsatellites which showed smoke rising from the launch site.

Planet Dove image of Iran SLV explosion

What is newsworthy about the image in the Trump tweet is that this appears to be the first time imagery from a KH-11 satellite has been disclosed to the public.  KH-11 satellites of five generations have been in service since 1976, but their performance has never been disclosed nor has imagery from them been previously released.  The performance of the satellites can be estimated from the diameter of the main mirror, which is known to be around 2.4 metres, the same as in the Hubble Space Telescope, which is reputed to be very similar to the KH-11, and also from the diameter of the payload fairing used on the rockets that launch them and their orbital altitudes which, although not disclosed, is determined by amateur satellite watchers.

It did not take long for satellite watchers to identify the satellite that took the image as USA-224, a KH-11 launched on 2011-01-20, with an estimated time the image was taken of 09:44:21 UTC on 2019-08-29.  Resolution in the image is estimated at around 10 cm per pixel, and given the slant angle and range, this gives a maximum resolution from the KH-11 of around 5 to 7 cm per pixel, in agreement with estimates from diffraction-limited performance of an optical system with 2.4 metre aperture.

Here is a Scott Manley video with information about the image, how the satellite that took it was identified, and what it tells us about the performance of the KH-11.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

10 thoughts on “Donald Trump Tweets KH-11 Spy Satellite Image”

  1. But it’s impressive that this old guy was able to extract the photo from a PowerPoint presentation, mail it to his personal email account, save it to the photo library on his iPhone, and then upload it to Twitter. Let’s see Joe Biden try that!

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  2. ctlaw:
    But it’s impressive that this old guy was able to extract the photo from a PowerPoint presentation, mail it to his personal email account, save it to the photo library on his iPhone, and then upload it to Twitter.

    As Scott Manley points out, in the centre of the image there’s what looks like the reflection from a flash, which may mean the tweeted image was shot from a screen showing the image.  There’s a black box at the top left which looks like a redaction, and there’s no way to know whether that was made in the original or the photo of the screen (but the way to bet is that it was in the photo, as it’s orthogonal to the edges of the photo while the captions in the image are not).

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  3. John Walker:
    As Scott Manley points out, in the centre of the image there’s what looks like the reflection from a flash, which may mean the tweeted image was shot from a screen showing the image.

    More likely a photo of a print. A digital image of a computer screen is likely to have some weird interference-like phenomena.

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  4. The trolling is delicious:

    I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.

    “Uh, it would be a real shame is something should happen to your launch vehicle.”

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  5. ctlaw:
    But it’s impressive that this old guy was able to extract the photo from a PowerPoint presentation, mail it to his personal email account, save it to the photo library on his iPhone, and then upload it to Twitter. Let’s see Joe Biden try that!

    The Don is hardly an “old guy.” He’s fast on his feet and absolutely committed to knowing everything about everything. Some personality traits are timeless. 🙂

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  6. MJBubba:
    And of course the Left is going nuts accusing President Trump of revealing top secret Defense intelligence.

    Which, as president, he is absolutely entitled to do at his sole discretion.  A few decades ago, there was a justification for concealing how effective U.S. surveillance assets were (although you could work it out from geometric optics and the assumption that with an unlimited budget they’d approach that limit), but today with commercial, open-to-the-public imagery approaching the resolution of government reconnaissance satellites and with far more frequent revisit times, there’s little reason to keep imagery secret to protect the capability.

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  7. MJBubba:
    And of course the Left is going nuts accusing President Trump of revealing top secret Defense intelligence.

    I read some of the responses to the president’s tweet from loony lefties. Many of them have no idea how intelligence is gathered or how satellite imagery works. One claimed that the photo could not have been taken from a satellite because it was not from directly above. These people are idiots and they want to rule over us.

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  8. This was not actually the first KH-11 image released, although it was the first release by a U.S. president.  In 1983, Jane’s Defence Weekly published images from a KH-11 which were disclosed by Samuel Loring Morison.  These images, including the one below:

    KH-11 image: construction of Soviet aircraft carrier, 1984

    gave a glimpse of the capability of the KH-11 at the time.

    Morrison was convicted of espionage and theft of government property in 1985.  He was pardoned on January 20th, 2001, by president Bill Clinton, against the recommendation of the CIA.

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