Trump Denying US Involvement in Iran’s Safir SLV Rocket Launch Failure

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President Donald Trump wants the world to know the United States was not involved in the failure of Iran’s most recent rocket this week.

To drive that point home, Trump took to Twitter and released what appears to be a U.S. reconnaissance satellite photo of Iran’s launch site after the failed launch. 

“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,” Trump said on Twitter. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”

President Donald Trump used Twitter to release this image of Iran’s rocket failure at the Khomeini Space Center on Aug. 29, 2019. Trump released the image, apparently a U.S. reconnaissance satellite view, on Aug. 30.
(Image credit: President Donald Trump via Twitter)

An Iranian rocket apparently exploded on the launch pad on Thursday, according to NPR. 

Images of the Imam Khomeini Space Center showed increased activity in recent weeks at the site, following a recent official statement which said that a satellite will soon be delivered to the Islamic Republic’s defense ministry.

The Imam Kohmeini  Space Center is usually “quite quiet,” according to Fabian Heinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “It’s very likely that something is going on,” said Heinz.

Satellite imagery showed smoke rising from the pad a few days later, with the rocket still attached to the machines erecting it for launch.

A senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute who analyzed the images, said that it “looks like the space launch vehicle blew up on the launch pad,” according to NPR.

Michael Elleman, Director of the Nonproliferation and Nuclear Policy Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that it seems to be an “accident during launch preparation,” according to the report.

Iran’s rocket failure occurred Thursday (Aug. 29) and was spotted by commercial Earth-imaging satellites.

The photo in Trump’s tweet, however, includes much more detail, with labels indicating a damaged gantry, support structures and vehicles. 

Trump’s tweet also suggests the incident occurred during launch preparations and was spotted by U.S. spy satellites, but it is not clear which satellite may have taken the image or if the photo was part of a classified daily briefing for the president.

The National Reconnaissance Office oversees a constellation of classified spy satellites in orbit.

This view of Iran’s rocket failure at Site One of its Khomeini Space Center was captured on Aug. 29, 2019 by the commercial WorldView-2 satellite operated by Maxar Technologies.
(Image credit: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies)

According to the New York Times, Trump said it was well within his power to release the image. “We had a photo and I released it, which I have the absolute right to do,” the Times quoted Trump as saying at Camp David late Friday. 

Trump’s tweet cam after the release of new commercial satellite images that revealed a more detailed look at Iran’s failed rocket launch attempt on Aug. 29, showing smoke and debris around the crash site.

A wider view of Iran’s rocket failure aftermath at the Khomeini Space Center on Aug. 29, 2019 as seen by the commercial WorldView-2 satellite operated by Maxar Technologies.
(Image credit: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies)

The images were captured by Maxar’s WorldView-2 satellite, showing an aerial view of the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran where the failed launch took place. A cloud of smoke is seen escaping the launch pad in the new imagery, as a row of support and maintenance vehicles surrounds the crash site. 

Maxar’s images, in turn, followed the release of an image by the commercial satellite imaging company Planet that also showed the Iranian rocket failure’s aftermath. That image was captured by one of Planet’s SkySat satellites on Aug. 29.

This is the third failed launch attempt for Iran this year, with earlier ones taking place in January and February. The January launch involved a Simorgh rocket, and the February one employed a different booster, the Safir.

Trump’s tweet, which mentions the Safir SLV, suggests it was a Safir rocket being prepared for launch during the Aug. 29 incident.

Iran became launched its first satellite Omid in 2009 using a Safir rocket. The country’s space ambitions have been a point of contention, with the U.S. accusing Iran of using their space program to develop missiles. 

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Within hours, analysts and amateur satellite trackers joined forces on social media and Internet forums to track down a possible source of the image Trump tweeted.

Christiaan Triebert, a visual investigations journalist at the New York Times, deduced from shadows in the image that it was taken between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. local time, probably on Thursday.

Open-source orbital data compiled by amateur trackers indicated that a top secret U.S. government spy satellite flew over the Semnan launch site during that time, according to Michael Thompson, a graduate student at Purdue University studying astrodynamics and spacecraft navigation.

Using public data, Thompson calculated that the satellite, officially designated USA-224, passed over the Iranian space center shortly after 2:10 p.m. local time Thursday.

Marco Langbroek, an experienced tracker of satellite movements who lives in the Netherlands, confirmed that the USA-224 spacecraft was over the Semnan launch base around that time.

In a post to the SeeSat-L Internet forum, where enthusiasts share their satellite sightings, Langbroek wrote the “angle from which the image seems to be taken … matches the post-culmination direction for USA-224.”

The USA-224 satellite is a suspected KH-11 type electro-optical surveillance satellite owned by the National Reconnaissance Office.

It launched Jan. 20, 2011, aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 4-Heavy rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

KH-11 satellites are believed to carry telescopes with 7.9-foot (2.4-meter) mirrors, the same size as the primary mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope.

An image captured by Thursday by Planet, a U.S. company that operates a fleet of small Earth-observing satellites, showed a smoke plume coming from the circular launch pad at a space center in north-central Iran’s Semnan province.

The image acquired by Planet, first published by NPR, suggested an explosion occurred on the launch pad, perhaps minutes before the privately-owned satellite took the photo.

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