Natanz explosion: How satellite images became key to Mideast reporting

New images from Natanz posted online on July 8 illustrated the extensive damage to the facility caused by a mysterious July 2 explosion.

A handout satellite image shows the new centrifuge assembly workshop, according to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) analysis, at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant in Natanz, Iran, July 1, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A handout satellite image shows the new centrifuge assembly workshop, according to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) analysis, at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant in Natanz, Iran, July 1, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Satellite images are increasingly playing a role in documenting and reporting incidents across the Middle East. The relatively quick and open access that reporters and open source social media users have to this advanced technology has revolutionized how people can report about war. The recent explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facilities is one example, as are the tracking of warplanes in Libya and elsewhere.
New images from Natanz posted online on July 8 illustrated the extensive damage to the facility caused by a mysterious July 2 explosion. Iranian state media had initially reported this as an accident, showing footage from the less damaged part of the building. Those who wanted to know more had to wait. Reporters these days have no access to Iran – and even if they did, the COVID-19 crisis has made most travel impossible. But eyes in the sky, with resolution getting better all the time, are a new resource.

The reports on Natanz now show that a massive explosion ripped apart a key building that is thought to have had centrifuges in it. The new images put online on July 8 were credited to Maxar, which described itself as combining “Space Infrastructure and Earth Intelligence capabilities to bring innovative solutions to commercial and government missions.” They recently announced their intent to fully acquire the 3D data and analytics firm Vricon, which was a result of a 2015 joint venture between Maxar and Saab.
Another image, which The Guardian ascribed to being ordered by @IranIntl and produced by Planet Labs, also showed the damaged Natanz facility. This one appeared on July 5 but was more fuzzy than the subsequent Maxar one. Iran International, which apparently acquired it from Planet Labs, is a Persian news channel. The Maxar photo shows how far debris flew from the explosion, whereas the July 5 image is not quite as good for determining this.
There is also an earlier image of the site, put online by Aurora Intel and credited to Planet Labs. Planet Labs calls itself the “largest earth observation satellite network delivering near-daily global dataset.” The July 3 image is of the entire area of the Natanz facility and makes it difficult to see what happened; the destroyed building is just a dark smudge. Clearly the high-resolution image on July 8 is more essential to understanding what took place. Historically, such images were primarily only available to governments.

NOT EVERYONE who reuses these images online credits the companies that produced the image. However, among the social media groups that identify as part of the OSINT or open source intelligence community, many are quick to put online images and identify their origin. For instance, the Sentinel-2 satellite images often feature in reports about various military movements and activity. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was caught by the satellite several months ago, for instance. In another post, a user notes that the Sentinel-1 CSAR helped identify C-band interference off the coast of Libya. Some users have collected months of data from these satellites to produce research on naval movements off such conflict areas.
While satellite photos are increasingly important, they can be faked and their images can be processed in such a way, using different bands of color, that change their appearance. Satellite images can be used to debunk stories relating to sensitive military issues, such as clashes between China and India or India and Pakistan.
In recent years however, the community that seeks to gain access to low-priced, high-resolution satellite images has faced challenges. TerraServer, which was used by human rights investigators and others, shut down earlier this year, frustrating many. For several hundred dollars a year, people could get the relatively recent high-definition photos they wanted. This has caused some groups that rely on these images to face hurdles or require subscriptions to their service to acquire better images.

THE USE of satellite images has huge ramifications for conflicts in the Middle East. Not only can it identify harm done to nuclear enrichment facilities, it has made possible tracking the escalation in the Libyan war. Images have shown Chinese-made drones, Russian-made Pantsir air defense and Turkish naval activity. Recent airstrikes on Watiya base by unknown aircraft were partially investigated using grainy satellite images. This is the kind of intel-gathering that previously only governments could do. However, the Watiya images were so grainy that it was not clear if the strikes could be verified.
Tanker Trackers, which helps track various oil exporters and thus has a lot of information about illicit sanction-busting by Iran, has noted that improved SKySat quality for images helped produce a high-resolution one of an abandoned tanker off the coast of Yemen. The existence of the ghost ship was known, but images can help identify leaks and other issues.
There are also companies out there that provide images from satellites they maintain, but only selected ones to the media or the public, with the understanding that they provide more sophisticated analysis as part of their business. ImageSat International, which uses the Israeli Eros constellation of satellites, is a global leader in end-to-end geospatial solutions.
Satellite images and analysis by ImageSat International have helped identify numerous important events in recent years. For instance, on July 3 their images examined the Khojir facility in Iran where a mysterious explosion had damaged the facility on June 26. They concluded that this gas facility was damaged and that it was linked to “supply gas for missile production.” ISI images are used frequently in regard to this incident and others in Syria and elsewhere. On May 27 for instance, they showed images of Russian military activity at Jufrah base in Libya.
This network of satellites and commercial providers, as well as OSINT online detectives, have helped revolutionize how we are able to look at incidents such as Natanz. It means that both the reporter, average person and expert can all look at the same images and discuss them. Sometimes online sleuths will find details that have eluded experts and even governments.