“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir [Space Launch Vehicle] Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” the president said in a tweet that accompanied the image on Friday. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.”
Speaking to reporters at the White House later on Friday, Mr Trump defended his posting of the photo and reiterated that the United States had nothing to do with the incident.
“We had a photo. I released it, which I have the absolute right to do,” Mr Trump said.
He said the Iranians “were going to set off a big missile and it didn’t work out too well. Had nothing to do with us”.
Images taken by Planet Labs Inc. and Maxar on Thursday showed dark smoke billowing from what appears to be the burnt remains of the rocket. Additional burn marks could be spotted on the launch pad that appears to have lost half of its recent paint job.
But the image shown in the president’s tweet appears to be of far better quality, says Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, who specializes in analyzing satellite imagery. “The resolution is amazingly high,” says Panda. “I would think it’s probably below well below 20 centimeters, which is much higher than anything I’ve ever seen.”
The explosion would be the third failure this year that Iran has experienced in preparing to launch a rocket.
Panda says that the tweet discloses “some pretty amazing capabilities that the public simply wasn’t privy to before 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
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred questions about the image to the White House, which declined to comment.
The image shows the aftermath of the accident, which experts believe took place while the rocket was being fueled. Clearly visible is the truck used to transport and erect the rocket, and the words “The product of national empowerment,” which have been written along the edge of the pad. The picture also shows extensive debris and charring around the pad.
It was not entirely clear where the president’s photo came from. Panda believes it was most likely taken by a classified U.S. satellite. But Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network at the One Earth Foundation, believes that the resolution is so high, it may be beyond the physical limits at which satellites can operate. “The atmosphere is thick enough that after somewhere around 11 to 9 centimeters, things get wonky,” she says.
That could mean it was taken by a drone or spy plane, though such a vehicle would be violating Iranian airspace. Hanham also says that the European company Airbus has been experimenting with drones that fly so high, they are technically outside the atmosphere and thus operating outside national boundaries. But she says she doesn’t know whether the U.S. has such a system.
Glare in the center of the image suggests the image in the tweet was itself a photo of a briefing slide. Panda suggests it could have been displayed on a computer screen in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. It’s also possible it was a photo of a piece of paper.
Either way, Panda notes that a small redaction in the upper left-hand corner suggests the intelligence community had cleared the image for release by the president.
A US defence official told CNBC that the picture, which appeared to be a snapshot of a physical copy of the satellite image, was included in an intelligence briefing on Friday.
The Pentagon did not have any immediate comment.
The United States has warned Iran against rocket launches, fearful the technology used to put satellites into orbit could enable Tehran to develop the ballistic missile capability needed to launch nuclear warheads.
Tehran denies the US accusation that such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development.
The Trump administration has ratcheted up economic pressure on Iran this year with economic sanctions to try to force it to renegotiate a pact reached with world powers in 2015 limiting its nuclear program. Mr Trump withdrew the United States from the pact in May last year.
Trump has offered to hold talks with Iran but Tehran says first it must get relief from US sanctions.