Open Source Intel Helps Reveal US Spy Sat Capabilities

On the 30th August 2019, the President of the United States tweeted an image of an Iranian spaceport, making note of the recent failed Safir launch at the site. The release of such an image prompted raised eyebrows, given the high resolution of the image, and that it appeared to be a smartphone photo taken of a classified intelligence document.

Inquisitive minds quickly leapt on the photo, seeking to determine the source of the image. While some speculated that it may have been taken from a surveillance aircraft or drone, analysis by the satellite tracking community disagreed.

A comparison of the actual image, top, and a simulation of what a shot from USA 224 would look like. Ignore the shadows, which are from an image taken at a different time of day. Note the very similar orientation of the features of the launchpad.

The angle of shadows in the image was used to determine the approximate time that the image was taken. Additionally, through careful comparison with existing satellite images from Google Maps, it was possible to infer the azimuth and elevation of the camera. Positions of military satellites aren’t made public, but amateur tracking networks had data placing satellite USA 224 at a similar azimuth and elevation around the time the image was taken.

With both the timing and positioning pointing to USA 224, evidence seems conclusive that this KH-11 satellite was responsible for taking the image. The last confirmed public leak of a Keyhole surveillance image was in 1984, making this an especially rare occurrence. Such leaks are often frowned upon in the intelligence community, as nation states prefer to keep surveillance capabilities close to their chest. The Safir images suggest that USA 224 has a resolution of 10cm per pixel or better – information that could prove useful to other intelligence organisations.

It’s not the first time we’ve covered formerly classified information, either – this teardown of a Soviet missile seeker bore many secrets.

Spy Tech: Tiny Spy Plane Becomes Cold War Prize

What looks like something famous, is much smaller, and is embroiled in a web of cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue? It sounds like the answer could be Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies, but we were actually thinking of the D-21 supersonic spy drone. Never heard of it? It didn’t have a very long service life, but it was a tiny little unmanned SR-71 and is part of a spy story that would fit right in with James Bond, if not Austin Powers.

The little plane had a wingspan of only 19 feet — compared to the SR-71’s 56 foot span — and was 42 feet long. It could fly at about Mach 3.3 at 95,000 feet and had a range of around 3,500 miles. It shared many characteristics with its big brother including the use of titanium and a design to present a low RADAR cross-section.

The Spy Who Photographed Me

With today’s global economy and increased international cooperation, it is hard to remember just how tense the late 1960s were. Governments wanted to see what other governments were up to. Satellite technology would eventually fill that role, but even though spy satellites first appeared in 1959, they used film that had to be retrieved by an airplane as it fell from the sky and then processed. Not exactly real time. More effective satellites would have to wait for better imaging technology — see the video below for just how bad those old satellite images were. That left spy planes to do the bulk of the work.

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