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USA-224 launch.jpg
Launch of USA-224
Mission typeOptical imaging
OperatorUS NRO
COSPAR ID2011-002A Edit this at Wikidata
SATCAT no.37348
Spacecraft properties
Spacecraft typeKH-11
ManufacturerLockheed Martin
Start of mission
Launch date20 January 2011, 21:10:30 (2011-01-20UTC21:10:30Z) UTC
RocketDelta IV Heavy D352
Launch siteVandenberg SLC-6
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeLow Earth
Perigee altitude270 kilometers (170 mi)[1]
Apogee altitude986 kilometers (613 mi)[1]
Inclination97.92 degrees[1]
Period97.13 minutes[1]
Epoch5 August 2014, 00:12:52 UTC[1]
NROL49 patch.jpg  

USA-224, also known as NROL-49, is an American reconnaissance satellite. Launched in 2011 to replace the decade-old USA-161 satellite, it is the fifteenth KH-11 optical imaging satellite to reach orbit.

Project history and cost[edit]

After the Boeing-led Future Imagery Architecture program failed in 2005, NRO ordered two more KH-11s, including USA-224. Critics worried that each of these "exquisite-class"[2] satellites would cost more than the latest Nimitz-class aircraft carrier (CVN-77), which had a projected procurement cost of US$6.35 billion as of May 2005 (equivalent to approximately $9B in 2021).[3][4] USA-224 – the first of these two – was completed by Lockheed $2 billion under the initial budget estimate, and two years ahead of schedule.[5]


USA-224 was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 6 in California. The launch was conducted by United Launch Alliance, and was the first flight of a Delta IV Heavy from Vandenberg.[6] Liftoff occurred on 20 January 2011 at 21:10:30 UTC.[7] Upon reaching orbit, the satellite received the International Designator 2011-002A.[8]

The satellite began operating 33 days after its predecessor, USA-161, stopped doing its primary mission. This coverage gap was much smaller than originally feared, thanks to USA-224's earlier-than-planned launch and operational changes to extend the lifetime of USA-161.[5]

As the fifteenth KH-11 satellite to be launched, USA-224 is a member of one of the later block configurations occasionally identified as being a separate system. Details of its mission and orbit are classified, but amateur observers have tracked it in low Earth orbit. Shortly after launch it was in an orbit with a perigee of 251 kilometres (156 mi), an apogee of 1,023 kilometres (636 mi) and 97.9 degrees of inclination, typical for an operational KH-11 satellite.[9] By April it was 260 by 987 kilometres (162 by 613 mi) at 97.93 degrees.[10]

Imaging of Safir launch preparation accident[edit]

A photo tweeted by President Trump which is believed to have been taken by USA-224

On 30 August 2019, President Donald Trump tweeted a declassified picture[11] from an intelligence briefing showing the aftermath of an accident that apparently occurred during launch preparations of a Safir rocket at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport a day earlier.[12][13][14] According to analysts, the photo is likely to have been taken by USA-224.[15][16] The opinion is based on a close agreement between the estimated time when the photo was taken (based on the orientation of shadows cast by structures in the photo), and the location of the satellite at that same time, as estimated with tracking data maintained by the amateur satellite watching community.[17][18][19] The off-nadir photograph stands out for its high-resolution (estimated by analysts to be 10 cm or less per pixel), sharpness and lack of atmospheric distortion.[15] Before this tweet, the only KH-11 imagery available was leaked in 1984,[16] and the only declassified imagery available in public domain was released in 2011 taken by KH-9.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Peat, Chris (5 August 2014). "USA 224 - Orbit". Heavens-Above. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 25 January 2015.
  2. ^ Ray, Justin (15 October 2017). "Atlas 5 pierces the night to boost national security satellite into space". Spaceflight Now. Archived from the original on 31 August 2019. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  3. ^ Bray, Hiawatha (1 April 2014). You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves. Basic Books. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-465-03285-3. Just one of the [KH-11] satellites was more expensive than the navy's latest Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which had cost $6.35 billion.
  4. ^ O'Rourke, Ronald (25 May 2005). "Navy CVN-21 Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress". Naval History and Heritage Command. Archived from the original on 14 January 2015. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  5. ^ a b "10 Who Made a Difference in Space: Bruce Carlson, NRO Director". Space News. 29 August 2011. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  6. ^ Ray, Justin (19 January 2011). "Delta 4-Heavy ready to serve nation from West Coast pad". Spaceflight Now. Archived from the original on 22 January 2011. Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  7. ^ Ray, Justin (23 January 2011). "Delta 4-Heavy's hush-hush payload found and identified". Delta Launch Report. Spaceflight Now. Archived from the original on 31 August 2019. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  8. ^ Christy, Robert. "Space events - 2011". Zarya. Archived from the original on 19 October 2012. Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  9. ^ Molczan, Ted (21 January 2011). "RE: NROL-49 search elements". SeeSat-L. Archived from the original on 28 September 2011. Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  10. ^ Molczan, Ted (27 April 2011). "NROL-34: NOSS 3-5 elements". SeeSat-L. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  11. ^ Donald Trump [@realdonaldtrump] (30 August 2019). "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" (Tweet). Archived from the original on 30 August 2019. Retrieved 31 August 2019 – via Twitter.
  12. ^ "US official confirms that Trump tweeted out a picture from a classified intelligence briefing". Business Insider. Archived from the original on 2019-09-01. Retrieved 2019-09-01.
  13. ^ Karimi, Nasser; Gambrell, Jon (2019-09-02). "Iran acknowledges rocket explosion, says test malfunctioned". AP NEWS. Archived from the original on 2019-09-02. Retrieved 2019-09-02.
  14. ^ Correspondent, Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon. "Iranian rocket explodes on launch pad". CNN. Archived from the original on 2019-08-31. Retrieved 2019-09-04.
  15. ^ a b "Amateurs Identify U.S. Spy Satellite Behind President Trump's Tweet". Retrieved 2019-09-02.
  16. ^ a b "Trump Tweeted a Sensitive Photo. Internet Sleuths Decoded It". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Archived from the original on 2019-09-04. Retrieved 2019-09-04.
  17. ^ Sheth, Sonam (2019-08-31). "Intelligence veterans are pulling their hair out over Trump's 'outrageous' and 'moronic' decision to tweet out a photo from a classified briefing". Business Insider Singapore. Archived from the original on 2019-09-01. Retrieved 2019-09-01.
  18. ^ Clark, Stephen (30 August 2019). "Surveillance photos reveal apparent explosion on Iranian launch pad". Spaceflight Now. Archived from the original on 31 August 2019. Retrieved 31 August 2019.
  19. ^ a b Fernholz, Tim. "What we can learn from the spy satellite image Trump tweeted". Quartz. Archived from the original on 2019-09-01. Retrieved 2019-08-31.