(Note added 31 Jan 2016: Max van der Werff brought to my attention that he is "kremlintroll" and that the pdf report on the blog was not written by him, but by someone else. That was not clear to me. I have added some comments in the text below to reflect this)
Since my contribution to the January 22 Dutch Parliamen hearing
on flight MH17, a number of people have reached out to me with satellite-related questions about MH17.
One of them was Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, who in a tweet
from 28 Jan 2016 asked me if I had anything to say about this analysis
) by a blogger named "Kremlintroll
" [edit: this turns out to be Max himself: but the pdf analysis on his blog was by someone else]
. It concerns a report with purported Russian satellite imagery of what was claimed to be BUK installations in a field near Zaroshchens'ke, on the Ukranian side of the front. It in addition includes claims that a particular US spy satellite overflew the area at the time the missile was fired.
I will answer Max' question here, but note that I do so without necessarily condoning Max viewpoints on MH17. There are a lot of bloggers expressing their (often very partisan) views on the case, and I prefer not to take sides with any of them at this moment.
At the same time, when satellite observations are brought up, I would like to see to it that the information presented is correct. So I will provide some of that information below, as it pertains to this case.
My initial intent was to keep it focussed at information about satellite passes. This is factual, objective information. While checking pass data for Resurs-P1
I did however note something that appears off with regard to one of the images. I will discuss that as well, with some reluctance: but given that I mentioned my doubts on twitter, it is fair that I should present the reasons for my doubts.
The imagery comes from a Russian government website
and was earlier the target of a "photo forensics" analysis
by the Bellingcat collective. The latter analysis has drawn fire
from professional photo-forensic analysts, who say the analysis was flawed. This critique comes from knowledgeable people on this matter, so should be taken seriously imho.
|click image to enlarge|
The image (reproduced above) purports to show Ukranian BUK installations in a field near Zaroshchens'ke in Ukraine, 47 deg 59' 00" N, 38 deg 27' 05" E. Text on the image states it was taken on 17 July 2014 at 11:32 (no timezone given, but presumably standard Moscow Time, UTC +3).
The pdf in the blog by "Kremlintroll" discusses the image as part of a larger narrative. In addition (and this was my initial focus), the author of the pdf claims that a US spy satellite actually overflew the MH17 disaster area at the time the missile was fired:
"According to our data from 17:06 till 17:21 Moscow time on July 17 over the South-Eastern territory of Ukraine flew a US space satellite. This is a special device of the experimental space system designed to detect and track various missiles launches"
[edit: the quote above is purportedly from a Russian officer, Lt-Gen Makushev]
US spy satellite fly-over?
Let us examine the latter claim first, as this is squarely within my field of expertise. As we will see, the claim appears to be false.
The description seems to refer to one of the Space Tracking and Surveillance System
) demo satellites in Low Earth Orbit (note the given pass time of 15 minutes in the quote above, indicating a satellite in Low Earth Orbit). They are experimental satellites for tracking missiles, serving a role initially projected for the (cancelled) SBIRS LOW segment. A pass of one of these satellites indeed takes about 15 minutes.
These particular satellites are tracked by our network. I checked their positions for 17 July 2014, 13:20 UT (the time of the MH17 disaster). They did not
have sight of the Ukraine at that moment.
STSS demo 1 and STSS demo 2 (2009-052 A and 2009-052B) move as a pair at a fixed distance of each other: STSS demo 1 passes a given location 10 minutes after STSS demo 2 does, along a similar track.
STSS demo 2 passed over the MH17 crash area around 12:35 UT, and STSS demo 1 did so around 12:45 UT. This is more than half an hour before
the MH17 disaster took place. STSS demo 1 lost view of the area around 12:55 UT, still 25 minutes before
the disaster. At 13:20 UT, the time of the disaster, the satellites were south of Australia, well away from the Ukraine (map below).
|click image to enlarge|
STSS-ATRR, a third satellite connected to this program, was just east of Sakhalin at that time, so nowhere near the Ukraine either.
Another US spy satellite, USA 161, did
pass over the area near 13:20 UT (see my previous post here
). This is however a KH-11 optical reconnaissance satellite, not one designed to track missiles as claimed in the pdf analysis hosted by Kremlintroll
. It also did not pass over the south-eastern territory of the Ukraine, but well west of the area in question. See my earlier post
for a discussion of what this satellite might, or more likely given amongst others that the area of interest was very periferal in the footprint, might not have imaged.
In other words: the claim about a US missile-tracking satellite in Low Earth Orbit overflying the Ukraine at 17:06-17:21 Moscow daylight saving time (13:06-13:21 UT),
is factually incorrect.
Of course, we should realise that three SBIRS satellites for missile detection in higher orbits (HEO and GEO) with (semi-) permanent view of the area did
the relevant area, as I reported
to Dutch Parliament, and in that sense this discussion is slightly academic: early warning satellites for missile launches did
potentially observe the Ukraine at that time. This SBIRS high
component in HEO and GEO however clearly is not
the low orbit (fly-over time listed as 15 minutes) experimental missile tracking satellite system the Russian officer was referring to. So, this specific information is incorrect.
So what about the satellite photograph distributed by the Russian government, showing purported BUK systems just south of Zaroshchens'ke and discussed in the pdf hosted by Kremlintroll
as evidence for Ukrainian BUK deployment in the area.
I was, and am, reluctant to discuss this photograph.
First, I am knowledgeable about satellite orbits, satellite positions and satellite system specifics (the kind of factual information I provided to the Parliament committee during the hearing of Jan 22): but I am not a photo interpreter.
I want to emphasize this. Analysis of this kind of imagery preferably should be done by a professional photo interpreter.
Second, following my role in the Parliament hearing, I prefer to refrain as much as possible from making any statements that might be misconstrued as 'taking sides'.
Nevertheless, while looking at satellite pass information I noted something about this photograph, that I think is relevant. With some reluctance, I provide these observations here in this blogpost. I want to make clear that this only concerns this particular photograph: I am not saying anything about other evidence presented by various parties, and importantly: I have no desire to analyse more images
. Again: that should better be done by professional photo interpreters. In a way, given the way this quickly developed on twitter, I regret mentioning my doubts about the satellite image in public, even though (as discussed below) I stand behind these doubts. Given that I mentioned my doubts on twitter, it is fair that I should present the reasons for my doubts below.
1. the satellite
First, the satellite that took the image. The image lists a time, 11:32 on 17 July 2014. Resurs-P1
(2013-030A), a Russian imaging satellite with 1-meter resolution, passed the area shown in the photograph at 08:32 UT (11:32 Moscow Standard Time, or 12:32 Moscow Daylight Saving Time) - an identification earlier also made on a Russian webforum
. Other high-resolution Russian imaging satellites do not match the pass time listed. The assumption that the image was made by Resurs-P1
therefore appears a valid one and will be the starting point of the discussion below.
|click image to enlarge|
culminated at 57.5 degrees elevation at 08:32:46 UT (July 17th 2014 - that is 11:32:46 Standard Moscow Time, 12:32:46 Moscow Daylight Saving Time) as seen from the field imaged in the photograph (which is at 47 deg 59' 00" N, 38 deg 27' 05" E). The satellite subpoint was some 281 km west of the location shown on the photograph at the moment of culmination. The location on the photograph is within the satellites known image swath width
of ~950 km (~475 km to each side of the satellite nadir).
It is therefore possible that Resurs-P1 did take an image of this field at the listed time.
That does however not
necessarily mean that the image is genuine. Something isn't sitting well with me regarding this image, raising my suspicion. I will discuss this below.
2. the photograph: suspicions
(again, I want to emphasize that I am not a professional photo interpreter. Keep that in mind)
So far, what I have written above is all straightforward factual: where were what satellites at a specified moment? What I am going to write below has a larger factor of interpretation.
As mentioned, Resurs-P1
culminated at a maximum altitude of 57.5 degrees for the location in question (that is a factual observation).
This immediately made me uneasy about the featured satellite photograph. For this image seemed to be a head-on image, taken with an angle to the horizon of near 90 degrees (straight down), rather than under an oblique 57.5 degree angle.
The image should, with a culmination altitude of 57.5 degrees for the satellite, instead show the installations obliquely (i.e. skewed, i.e., not just show the tops but also show parts of lateral sides of the purported BUK installations). It should also show the landscape somewhat obliquely.
Resurs-P1 passed west of the area in question. This is towards the left side of the image. The image should therefore show the BUK installations somewhat skewed with something of the lateral sides visible on the left hand side.
I used sketchup
to make a simple block-model with the dimensions of a BUK (roughly 9.9 x 3.3 x 3.8 meter), and then rendered it under a 57.5 degree angle with the horizontal. The image below shows the result as an inset in the original image.
To me, it appears that the photograph indeed should show more of the
lateral sides of the purported BUK installations than it does: the installations shown in the image appear to
be seen too-much head-on compared to the modelled view under a 57.5 degree angle.
There is also something off in the positions of the shadows. They should be slightly
displaced to the left, compared to what the image appears to show (the sun was at azimuth 150.7 degrees,
i.e. southeast, and elevation 60.6 degrees at 8:32:46 UT. The shadows
should point slightly to the left in the image, even more so if the image is taken from a point to the west of the area under a 57.5 degree or smaller angle).
Taken together, it suggests that the photograph does not
show a scene compliant with the geometric situation at 8:32 UT on 17 July 2014 as seen from Resurs-P1
As a caveat, I should emphasize that we are talking about structure at the edge of the satellite's image resolution here, with objects only a few pixels wide (and again: I warn that I am not a professional photo interpreter). There might also have been done some unknown image processing, including resampling, as part of preparing the photo for publication. Still, I feel there is reason to be very cautious about these images.
A few last words on my position in this
I want to note that this is the first and
last time I will, with regard to MH17, foray into the domain of satellite photo interpretation, also given the very strong reactions this has already spawned on media like twitter. Agitprops from all sides have jumped on it.
I prefer to keep my further involvement with MH17 focussed on providing factual data on satellite positions and satellite system specifications, in line with the role I played in this month's Parliament hearing. That is a position only people with an agenda could take issue with.
With all the things that have come up over the past 1.5 year, and with multiple
parties involved clearly unwilling to provide pertinent data, I have taken a step back, opinion-wise. In the current situation, my aim is to not point fingers until verifiable evidence is put on the table. The report of the Dutch Safety Board is a first step into that direction, but there are still many aspects of the case that are very unclear. Clarifying these was the main point of the Parliament hearing of January 22.
Labels: BUK, MH17, Resurs, Resurs-P1, Russia, STSS demo 1, STSS demo 2, Ukraine, USA 161