Did President Trump Just "Out" the Top-Secret KH-11 Program?

When President Trump tweeted that the U.S. was not involved in the launch explosion at Iran's Semnan Launch Site One, he might have accidentally betrayed the KH-11 photo reconnaissance project.
Marcia Wendorf

Last week wasn't the greatest week for U.S. President Donald Trump. First, he urged residents of the state of Alabama to take cover from Hurricane Dorian, when in fact, Alabama is several hundred miles west of the U.S. east coast.

Then, on Friday August 30, 2019, the president tweeted a picture showing a failed launch explosion that took place at the Iranian Semnan Launch Site One:

According to CNBC, a U.S. defense official confirmed that the picture was part of that Friday's intelligence briefing, and experts have said that the picture was never meant for public view.

Besides the obvious question of whether the president blew the lid off a top-secret operation, was the question of how the picture was taken in the first place.

KH-11 photo-reconnaissance satellites

After the president's tweet, amateur satellite trackers got to work, with Marco Langbroek identifying the picture as the work of reconnaissance satellite USA 224. Langbroek administers an amateur satellite tracking blog in the Netherlands. USA 224 is one of the U.S.'s KH-11 photo-reconnaissance satellites.


For decades, the KH-11 program was one of America's most closely-guarded secrets. It is run by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) whose motto is "Supra Et Ultra. In English: "Above and Beyond."

The NRO's logline is "Develop. Acquire. Launch. Operate" and the agency describes its mission as: "When the United States needs eyes and ears in critical places ... The NRO is the U.S. Government agency in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites."

The KH-11 program goes all the way back to 1976, and "KH" may be an acronym for "key hole". According to 2012 budget documents, the current codename for the project may be EVOLVED ENHANCED CRYSTAL (EECS), or ADVANCED CRYSTAL, KENNEN. "Kennen" is the German word for "know".

The KH-11 satellites were the first to abandon film-based surveillance in favor of optoelectronics, or optronics. Optoelectronics is the study of the quantum mechanical effects of light on electronic materials, especially semiconductors. Besides visible light, gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet and infrared can also be used.

The KH-11 satellites are believed to resemble the Hubble Space Telescope in both size and shape. They have a length of 19.5 meters, a diameter of 3 meters, and weigh in at around 17,000 to 19,000 kg. They are thought to be able to maneuver by using a hydrazine-powered propulsion system.

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Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Space Telescope Source: NASA

In his 2001 book entitled The Wizards of Langley. Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, author Jeffrey Richelson states that like the Hubble Space Telescope, KH-11 satellites have 2.4-meter (7.9 foot) diameter mirrors, which would yield a resolution of almost 10 cm. By comparison, the highest-caliber commercial satellites can only provide a resolution of 25 centimeters.

The only other known examples of KH-11 satellite images were those leaked in 1984 by Samuel Loring Morison, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst. Morrison gave three classified satellite photos of the Soviet navy's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Jane's Defense Weekly, a British military magazine. For this offense, Morrison was convicted of espionage and served two years in prison.

In all, nine KH-11 satellites have been launched between 1976 and 2013. They revolve in sun-synchronous orbits (SSO), also called heliosynchronous orbits. These are nearly polar orbits such that the satellite passes over a given point on the Earth's  surface at the same local mean solar time.

Sun-synchronous orbits
Sun-synchronous orbits Source: HeliosynchronousOrbit/Wikimedia Commons

There are two types of sun-synchronous orbits: a noon/midnight orbit, where the local mean solar time of passage is around noon or midnight, and a dawn/dusk orbit, where the local mean solar time of passage is around sunrise or sunset. The satellite rides the terminator, the moving line that divides the daylit side and the dark night side of the Earth.

Because shadows help to discern ground features, satellites in a noon/midnight orbit observe the ground at local afternoon hours, while satellites in a dawn/dusk orbit observe the ground at local morning hours.

Other sleuths

Besides Marco Langbroek, in a tweet, New York Times columnist Christiaan Triebert used shadows in the photo tweeted by President Trump to determine that the photo was taken between the hours of 13:30 and 14:30 UTC.

In another tweet, Purdue University graduate student Michael Thompson determined that USA 224 was over the Iranian launch site at exactly that time. Langbroek then analyzed the angle from which the photo was taken to determine almost certainly that the photo was taken by USA 224 from 385 kilometers out in space.

In January 2011, the National Reconnaissance Office donated two decommissioned Optical Telescope Assemblies (OTA) to NASA. They have an additional third mirror, which allows for a much wider field of view than the Hubble Space Telescope has, thus making them ideal for searching for dark matter and energy.

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