Amateur Satellite Trackers Find the U.S. Spy Satellite Behind a Tweet

Amateur satellite trackers were able to determine that a U.S. spy satellite was behind a high resolution image that was tweeted out.
Donna Fuscaldo
Satellite in spacePolina Shuvaeva/iStock

When a sensitive military intelligence photo of a failed launch at the Iman Khomeini Space Center in Iran was tweeted out late last week, it only took a few hours for a group of amateur satellite trackers to determine how the high-resolution photo was taken. 

The group, located around the country, quickly determined the photo was snapped using a spy satellite and then based on further sleuthing determined it was the USA 224 satellite, which is a National Reconnaissance Office satellite that was launched eight years ago. There is a lot of speculation about the USA 224 satellite since everything about the spy program has been classified. But that didn't stop the satellite trackers, who were able to trace the photo to the satellite. 


Sleuthing on the part of amateurs pinpointed when and how the image was taken

According to WIRED, Christiaan Triebert, a New York Times journalist on the paper's visual investigation team, relied on shadows in the image to determine within a window of one hour when the photo was taken. Armed with that knowledge Michael Thompson, a Purdue University graduate student in astrodynamics noted the USA 224 was over the Iranian launch facility in the timeframe determined by Triebert.

Marco Langobroek, who operates an amateur spy satellite tracking station in the Netherlands used the information to conduct an analysis that resulted in him finding the location of the satellite at the time the image was taken. He used orbit data from a network of amateur spy satellite trackers to ascertain the orbital trajectory. He then measured the angle the satellite was viewing the Iranian launchpad to come up with the exact location of the satellite. 

“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,” Cees Bassa, an astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy who came to a similar conclusion to Langbroek’s, told WIRED. “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.”

First time in more than thirty-years a high-resolution spy image was released 

According to media reports Iran was gearing up to launch a rocket with a satellite on board but it exploded while it was getting fuel.  The tweeted out image marks the first time in more than thirty years that an image made public shows the ability of spy satellites in the U.S. According to Langbroek that hasn't happened since 1984 when an image was leaked by a Navy intelligence analyst. “The US DOD has released reconnaissance satellite imagery on a number of occasions, but in all cases those were deliberately degraded images,” said Langbroek in the report. 

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