The US President has done it again.

Just when you think things can’t get any more—”unusual”— in the White House, the President has Tweeted an American spy satellite image as part of a juvenile jab at Iranian leadership. After some sleuthing, astronomers were able to figure out which satellite it came from: a (formerly) top-secret satellite called USA 224, an optical reconnaissance satellite.

Trump’s tweet unwittingly revealed some of the capabilities of American satellite imagery. USA 224 has been kept top-secret for national security reasons, so the Intelligence Community is probably not very happy about this. Why reveal your intelligence-gathering capabilities to your adversaries, including Iran itself?

That is a photo taken of a screen during an intelligence presentation with the classification tag covered over. The combination of orientation and time can be used to determine what satellite and details of the imaging system used. Nice job giving away NTM sources and methods.

— D. Stamos/Helodriver (@SpacecoastPix) August 30, 2019

Some people were immediately critical of the President’s tweet.

Iran and the USA have a fractious relationship going back decades. The USA accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and of sponsoring terrorism. Iran accuses the USA of sponsoring terrorism by supplying Israel with billions of dollars worth of high-tech weaponry.

Things calmed down when Iran signed a deal under Obama limiting their nuclear technologies in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. When elected, Trump scrapped that deal. Since then, things between the USA and Iran have heated up again.

Iran has been developing launch capabilities for years now. They’ve been testing rockets at their Imam Khomeini Spaceport in norther Iran. At the end of August, a launch attempt failed on the pad. Unclassified satellite images showed a plume of smoke rising from the facility, and not much else.

A plume of smoke rising from the Imam Khomeini Spaceport. Image Credit: Copyright Planet Labs Inc.

But Trump loves to get his jabs in, so he tweeted this:

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

It appears that Trump was briefed with a print of this classified image, and that he took a picture with his phone and tweeted it. You can see the camera flash in the middle of the image. Immediately, people were concerned that he had revealed US surveillance capabilities.

“… there is no doubt in my mind that it is an image taken by USA 224.”

Astronomer Marco Langbroek.

Some people wondered what the big deal was. The image doesn’t seem to reveal much, on the surface of it. But it’s problematic, and here’s why:

Astro

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