Friday, November 14, 2014

Shocking MH17 shotdown photo passes some tests but failed in others

One hour after I posted it, a commenter's URL convinced me that the photo is fake. See the featured comment below the post.

But you still want to see what I wrote before that, right? ;-) Here it is.

The MH17 aircraft was shot down above Eastern Ukraine on July 17th around 13:20 UTC. A ground-to-air missile or an air-to-air missile are the leading "technical" explanations of what happened. The ground-to-air missile theory (probably using a Buk missile; recently vaguely endorsed by the German intelligence) would leave the question "who did it" and "why" open. The air-to-air missile theory would have clearer implications – the post-Maidan Ukrainian government would be behind it.

Click the picture for a 7406 x 5000 very high resolution photograph.

Hours ago, ITAR-TASS (and later The Daily Mail and a helpful blog; I know it from the Czech media) brought us the photograph above.

It was shown on Russia's TV Channel One: see the clip. George Bilt or George Beatle or George Bild, an MIT alumnus, said that he got access to this satellite photograph coming from the U.K. or, more likely (because of the time format etc.), U.S. intelligence agencies. The picture was taken at UTC 1:19:47 on July 17th, see the bottom of the image above. The timing is compatible with some basic stories you may see on Wikipedia, too.

The small rectangle on the left side of the image is magnified and shows Mig-29 or SU-27 (can you tell which one?) that is just shooting a heat-seeking missile (a visible line is on the picture) in the direction of the unlucky Boeing 777-200 that tried to get from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. (Previously, the air-to-air theories would try to work with an SU-25.) It may have been the last second when the Boeing was OK. Note that in previous comments, it was believed that

It seems rather clear to me that the U.S. intelligence agencies have to possess actual photographs of what happened at that moment. It has always been puzzling that they didn't show us to them. It's especially puzzling if you assume that these photographs show that Novorussia or Russia was behind the shotdown.

This could be the actual picture.

Aside from the conceivable timing, the image seems to pass several other tests. Note that all the airplanes as well as the structures on the ground should be shown with the same scale – because the satellites are de facto infinitely far away. And the Boeing should be at the right place and flying in the right direction.

The image seems to pass these tests.

It doesn't prove that it's not a photoshopped image. But if it is a photoshopped image, its creator did his homework. I think that in that case, he or she would have to be a pretty good professional.

Even in that case, there should exist methods to show that this is a forgery. One could analyze the picture in some detail. Alternatively, the U.S. agents should be able to show us what was actually happening above that area at UTC 1:19:47 on July 17th – because they almost certainly know it, don't they?

I am still uncertain – this picture may get disproved in coming hours or days or weeks. But if time continues without any negative evidence, my personal belief that this picture is legitimate will increase towards 100 percent.

Note that if the "Kiev's official aircraft did it" theory turns out to be relevant, one still faces the question why they did it. And things like the assassination attempt against Vladimir Putin would have to be seriously considered.

The photograph is said to have been "around" since October 15th and obtained through Russian Wikileaks.

If you're able to tell us something new about the event or the image file, it will be appreciated.

Is this precise jet fighter the one that downed MH17?

Interestingly enough, I was trying to find the right SU-27 or Mig-29 that has the same coating as the fighter jet on the satellite photograph, and I actually believe that this is the one. Do you agree?

To compare, I also added the picture above – which is taken from the satellite photographs, with some increased contrast, reduced brightness, increased blue brightness, and rotated by 110 degrees counterclockwise. Do the patterns match as much as the poor resolution allows?



  2. I'm calling fake for a couple of reasons. First, in the news report, the email from "George Bilt" from MIT is written by someone who is not proficient in English. I'm talking way beyond 'not a native speaker' -- this guy doesn't even regularly converse in English. (Your English is much, MUCH better.) The idioms that are being used are NOT consistent with someone who knows American aviation or American style aerial combat.

    Also, I'm doubting the satellite photos, on a purely technical sense. You can get very sharp images, but you get them with a rolling shutter. This was a snapshot style image, which don't make a lot of sense on satellites. With things moving as fast as planes and especially the missile track, there should be obvious banding where the orientation of the bird vs the moving missile was moving as the shutter rolled/scanned across the image, causing increasing parallax. Instead of a nice, straight missile track, there should be several images of the missile and breaks in the track. Satellites tend to be more like scanners than snapshop cameras (because that is good enough for what they do -- which is not taking images of in flight missiles.

  3. More good analysis:

    I'm solidly in the "Russian disinformation" camp again.

  4. Sorry, George may be just an anglicization of some other (non-English-based) name, cannot it? If it's a foreigner, it's OK, isn't it? You surely don't believe that no MIT alumnus has less authentic English than ex-faculty at Harvard, do you? ;-)

  5. The issue isn't that he is a foreigner, it is that he is misrepresenting who he is. If you lie about your identity and qualifications right off the bat, you are likely lying about everything.

    That email was not written by someone who has studied at MIT. Add in all the other evidence of fakery, and I'm looking right at a sloppy attempt by the GRU.

  6. Does seem to be another image to the starboard rear side of the Russian fighter aircraft that's been altered to obscure the possible second aircraft flying in close formation, funny how the ground image looks scatty in this location.

  7. As far as the exposure time, we would be talking about taking an image hundreds of kilometers wide as a snapshot, meaning effectively at once.

    The problem isn't the sharpness. It is that all of the moving parts are shown in the same instant. On more space based earth focused cameras, they use a rolling shutter that takes the photo a strip at a time (like a scanning television image) and then stitch it together later.

  8. Pretty interesting arguments, some of them could be decisive.

  9. The US would hide their satellite photos if they are of an advanced capability, or have some other aspect they wish to keep secret.

    The skeptical take below would suggest such an advanced capability.

    As to expecting quality forgery work from the government, I refer you to the CIA zoom-climb scenario with regards to TWA 800 that was laughed out by aviation experts almost instantaneously, though it served the purpose of getting the media to move on. Also served John Kerry's purpose of hinting about with leaks to the Globe, and Al Gore announces he is not running within a week.

  10. The distance between the planes is cca 800m - easy to calulate from the known length of Boeing 777. Even the fighter has a correct length 18-22 m. What is weird - the distance of the places under the planes based on the underlaying map - it's 50 km!! How high above the plane the sattelite should be to take such picture? :-) 500m ? I'm too lazy to calulate triangles :) They made a big mistake :) If it was taken from a sattelite the Boeing is a few km long :) =MK=

  11. The US spy satellites are not in geosync orbit, but just about 250 km up, and there are only a few of them. So it is inconceivable that the orbital timing of a 2 minute pass over Ukraine, which only occurs 1-2 times daily, would coincide with the precise time of the missile attack. Especially when the orbits of these satellites are not classified but easily tracked by amateurs.

  12. Are you implying that the US has no capability to continuously monitor some specific conflict area from above, like the area size of Eastern Ukraine? Or am I misreading it?

  13. Even people on russian " patriotic" forums completely agree that it is fake.

    Sorry Lubos, it was obvios that you truly wanted it to be true, but life is not that simple.

  14. There is no blurring in a high-resolution picture of a jet in mid-flight? Obvious fake.

  15. By comparison, here is a satellite photo of an airplane on a runway:,-87.9194842,165m/data=!3m1!1e3

  16. You are joking about the number of US spy satellites, right? Here is a recreation of current
    earth satellites:

  17. And another one here:

  18. And a tons more below. Interestingly, not all planes in flight show a rainbow. My guess is that it depends on its speed.

  19. I am surprised that you think the US has photographs of the event. The low earth orbit satellites are unlikely to have been over the area at the time, and even if they were, they would not likely have high resolution cameras focused on that spot.

    If the US has any geo-sync orbit photo-recon satellites, they've done a good job of keeping them quiet. But, even if they did, the resolution problem for that range makes them pretty useless for this purpose. Do the math.

    On the other hand, it's likely that the US had ELINT (or whatever they call it these days) assets looking that way, probably from some distance - on airborne, spaceborne or land platforms. The spooks would be quite interested in all the electronic emissions from the area. But, those assets would not necessarily provide a definitive idea of what happened. My guess is that they picked up BUK fire control radar emissions, perhaps reflected from MH17, which are easy to identify.

    Finally, the US is very careful about what technical intelligence is released, as the capabilities and deployment doctrine of those systems is highly classified. They may or may not release some of that information to make a technical point. Military information I had access to decades ago was kept quiet for many years.

  20. So what? 99.9% of them are commercial or communications satellites.

  21. From 42000 km up, yes, in geosync orbit. Not from low earth orbit where the KH and NRO imagers fly. A telescope in geosync orbit would have to be as big as a house to achieve 2 meter resolution. Nobody has any rocket big enough to launch it.

  22. Sorry, I have no idea what you're talking about. Comments like yours wouldn't affect my beliefs about such a question by an inch.

    Every fake is intentional, by definition - the only question is who created it and why.

    I don't see anything about how any propaganda works. There was a picture obtained from unclear sources - a Russian TV obtained it just like I did. Both of these "news outlets" saw the picture as looking legitimate before they published a story. In my case, it took 34 minutes to be told about relevant proofs it's fake, 38 minutes to be absolutely convinced it's fake, and 57 minutes to modify the blog post appropriately.

    Someone may be slower, Not everyone is Lubos Motl, with all the modesty. But that shows nothing about how some "propaganda" works.

  23. Dear Lubos, may be I was not clear enough.

    Let me say it differently.
    1) There is a russian web-site, whose OWNER and one of the writers is exactly THE SAME man, Mikhail Leontiev, who did this TV-announcement, which you are talking about. It is him, the same man.

    2) On his web-site he published long article which more or less copies all his arguments.

    3) This article was deleted from the web-site without any explanations, in absolute silence.

    4) There is a google cash, which proves that the article existed.

    Question: why would he delete his own article from his own web-site without any explanations?

  24. Probably because he found it was fake as well, didn't he? What's your problem? What's shocking that the man who opens this thing on the web - apparently closest to the source - is also allowed to present it on TV?

  25. Very good. Now you understand what I am talking about. Now, if you do not mind, let me tell you what I mean by the word " intentional". By this word I mean not the fact that this fake photograph was created intentionally, but little more than that: He( Mikhail Leontiev) intentionally made this program , WITH the clear knowledge that the photograph was fake. So it is not like he was not sure. He was completely sure: the photo is fake.

    Questions now: 1) Is it clear what I mean by the word " intentional fake"?
    2) Do you want the proofs of that, or you do not really care?

  26. Why creating a fake ? It is always better for both sides to leave it as a mystery rather than a doubtful proof.

  27. Well, Shannon, whoever created this fake (or any other fake) either 1) wanted to shift people's opinions in one direction or another, or 2) just wanted to have some fun.

    When the fake-ness of something is found, there is no shift (or small opposite shift) in the opinions and mystery survives.

    Surviving mystery is just OK but I would personally like to know exactly what happened - I like to learn answers, especially clear answers, This wasn't an example. It's still plausible that it was shot down from the air but this ain't the proof.

  28. To have a continuos high resolution image of Ukraine they'd need to have couple thousand satellites just over the region.

  29. There might be another parameter here: a few days ago Russia has issued France an ultimatum regarding the delivery of the Mistral frigate (Hollande will have to make his decision within 2 weeks now).

  30. This is very likely to be a fake. And, I think it is even more unlikely that a U.S. reconnaissance ("spy") satellite was in the correct time-space location to take this photograph. I've worked in the past with such satellite images: getting frequent images even of "high-interest" locations was a constant headache.

    Pretty much anything's possible, but I strongly suspect the image is faked.

  31. I haven't been following this story for a while, but I have a simple question that seems relevant: what happened to the flight data and voice recorders? Did not the Uke government get them? If so, what, if anything, has emerged from the information?

  32. Maybe there was a time when one could trust a UK government but those days are long gone.

    The silence on this—at least I've heard nothing—says enough.

  33. it doesn't need to be a satellite image. Rather, if this is real (which it probably is not), it should have been made by a drone, so probably taken from about 15 km height.

    It is more than possible that American drones were in the area spying, since it was and is a war zone between the American backed Kiev government and the separatists. The Americans were present at the time in the Black sea. The drones that fly at those hights include:

  34. It depends on the speed and the type of sensor being used in the space based camera. The ones with the rainbows are four channel devices with four separate sensors (one highly sensitive B&W camera and then three lower res color sensors to add RGB). Optical parallax isn't a problem since your target is hundreds of miles away, but time-based parallax happens because the sensors are being read in serial. The misalignment is larger based on the speed, but there are lots of cameras being used by google earth, and some of them may used different systems like a Bayer filter for color.

    The thing is, none of this applies to the photo in question, since it is monochrome. On a real photo, that would suggest some wavelength other than visible light, but in this case it was just the forger muddying the photo to help cover the forgery.

  35. That's it exactly. That's why we have developed drones with extremely wide angle views (like the Argus-IS) to give us that capability over a particular target.

    We can get an overall, low-res view of an entire theater from geosynchronous, but that's used more for things like detecting missile launches. On the SAM launch, we very likely did detect that explicitly (and our diplomats have hinted as much) but we aren't going to release those photos, because that system is vital to our missile defense systems, and if the Russians could see what the sensor sees, they can work on figuring out how to mask the signature.

  36. The strongest arguments about this being a fake are the letters on the Boeing, not coinciding with the Malaysian airplane and the fields of the area on the ground suggesting that it was an aerial photograph of more than 10 years ago.

    The people arguing about the impossibility because of 'satellite imagery', should keep in mind that it was not necessarily a satellite image, but easily could have been a drone image.

  37. not if it was a drone...

  38. Agreed. I was considering follow up to say that Google pics show that monochrome image need not be motion blurred.

  39. I find it a bit too much of a lucky timing. I mean, right at the moment when Mig was firing a missile?

  40. MH17 was at 35,000 ft (IIRC) and you say the drone was at about 15km (probably), if it were a drone shot, that is.

    The two heights here then are in the ratio of roughly 35:50. That's plenty for comparing the size of some selected ground feature to the known length of MH17 to distinguish drone from satellite.

    There seems to be something that looks like an airstrip about a quarter of the picture's width to the south west of MH17. If so, then it looks very much like a drone shot — no need to get a ruler out.


  41. There is another bit, that I always wanted to hear some explanation of. The plane route was about 100 miles more to the North than during 10 previous flights of the same airline. This was posted on Twitter. I checked the Web site, one of those sites that track all departures, arrivals and current locations of commercial airliners, and convinced myself that it was true. Yet, nobody found it necessary to explain such a deviation which puts the plane right over the warzone.

  42. I don't know what you took, but it can't be very healthy. And about the ratio's and sizes of objects in the background, it just depends on the lenses used for the pictures.

  43. "And about the ratio's and sizes of objects in the background, it just depends on the lenses used for the pictures."

    No it doesn't.

  44. well, the area was and is of high interest, since there was exactly there, a war going on. Surveillance of airplanes and ground movements was and is of high interest for both the Kiev troops and for the separatists. And mind you, read this:

    "Gorgon Stare can provide a continuous city-sized overall picture, multiple sub-views of the overall field and what are high resolution “chipouts” of individual views, each of which can be streamed in real time to multiple viewers. A single Gorgon Stare pod can generate two terabytes of data a day.":

    Be aware that on the 17th, the day of the shoot down, US army was performing 'excercises' with Ukraine in the Black sea. So to me, the permanent existence of drones flying over the area is more than likely, and nowadays they provide permanent photography if needed.


  46. Irrelevant. Look at the field of view here.

  47. Well .. publishing a retraction would be a civilized thing to do.

  48. We need to know who is this George Bilt from MIT who sent this fake photo to the Russians.

  49. Right, they should broadcast a correction.

    Note that it was just one channel. RT didn't air the story at all - probably they found it was fake before it got high enough.

  50. LOL, I would guess that this name is fictitious just like the photograph, isn't it?

  51. I an confuse, after so many accuses from Russia, Russia can't be trust

  52. Should be easy to check on the list of graduates at MIT.

  53. the plane was chased off course, and shot down by an oligarch and Israelli citizen, who btw, admitted shooting it down on purpose. The reason is, it is a Muslim plane, and they do not want such overflights.

  54. Dear Lubos, I am still very curious: Why is it not the dis-proportionally large size of the aircraft that is, in your opinion, the strongest and most obvious reason for this image to be fake?

    And also, why does the focal length of the lens is persistently mentioned in this and other discussion on this subject?

    As for the drones capable of flying just above the aircraft at 10 km altitude (if they exist): are they allowed to enter airspace of a foreign country and they fly so deep into that airspace without being detected by radars? Please enlighten.

  55. These images were taken from different distances. If these images were taken from the same distance and then zoomed+cropped accordingly there should be no difference in the apparent sizes of the flask versus the object in the background. The ratio of apparent sizes of objects in an image should be entirely defined by their angular sizes, which in turn are defined by the camera-object distance and the actual size of the object. It does not appear that the focal length of the lens is part of the equation. Am I missing something?

  56. Dear Nancy, thanks for questions.

    1) The sizes passed *some* of my tests. Generally, I don't find this approach a natural "smoking gun" because the size may be explained by the location of the satellite or another flying object that would take the picture, plus some simple manipulation of one or many pictures that I don't exactly know.

    The size is just one number that may be fine-tuned. On the other hand, the patterns on the Earth's surface contain a huge amount of information and if one shows that they exactly agree with what they were in 2002, it settles the question that the whole picture wasn't taken in 2014 because that couldn't realistically agree with the fact that "so many parameters on the ground" agree with 2002. So I completely disagree with you that the size is stronger or more obvious than the patterns.

    2) Some people may think in terms of very specific scenarios how to take the picture, and for that, the focal length etc. may be useful. It's just not my way of thinking about it because they may be doing too many assumptions about what kinds of spying technology could be used.

    3) I am no expert in "legality of drones or satellites" entering another nation's territory. And I don't even think that such laws are too important. Shooting down a drone/satellite above a territory is always a potential problem - one should know what he is doing. The higher the object is, the harder it is to shoot it down, and the less legal it is because the territories don't own the "space" up to any latitude but only some vicinity of the surface. I guess that the laws define some region where the atmosphere is as a part of the territorial "air", but above the air, the space is already belonging to no one. I could study the details but I am not a lawyer so I am happily not interested in these social conventions.

    They're irrelevant, anyway, simply because anyone on the Ukrainian territory may break these and other laws and it often happens as long as they are not breaking the laws of Nature - and those are the laws I care about. ;-)

  57. Dear Lubos, this is one example of how russian propaganda works. This fake image was shown on the russian national channel #1. It was a whole reportage presented as sensation which immediately spread over Russia and abroad. This was done intentionally (they knew that the image was fake because it can be easily verified in few minutes even by not professionals). And of course they knew that this would be refuted at the same day, but their goal would still be achieved: millions of russians watched this reportage and the majority of them will never learn that it was fake (simply because afterwards the channel didn't show that they "made mistake" and the majority of this people won't bother to check on the internet, because they take for granted everything they see on TV). And this is only one example of russian propaganda against Ukraine. I hope that in the future you will be more careful about what you post (especially when you re-post russian propaganda against Ukraine).

  58. Dear Lubos, thank you for such a detailed answer which exceeded all my expectations. I have to admit of being guilty of using a touch of sarcasm in my question regarding drone's legality ;-)

    Going back to breaking laws of nature and physics. The out-of-proportion scale of the plane keeps bugging me. The wikipedia article regarding the effects of the focal length on the perspective distortion needs some good editing. It may be marginally OK to talk about effects of the focal length on the perspective distortion in a some sort of a practical photography guide of for dummies but I am surprised that your keen eye did not find that example:
    offensively (or perhaps elegantly ;-)) misleading from the optics point of view.
    The caption saves the face of the article saying that "identical field size achieved by different camera-subject distances". But a photographer walks away thinking that optics can bend light.

    So as applied to the apparent scaling of a flying craft relative to the ground, stating that this scaling depends on the focal length of the camera does imply breaking at least one law of physics - bending rays of light. I can not attach my illustration here, but here is the one nearly identical to mine:

    If the camera is really a couple hundred meters above the aircraft, i.e. ~11-15 km altitude, the image that covers at least 50km x 100km has to be a composition of many images taken while the drone is meticulously meandering over this particular area. Why? Because both the military jet and the Boeing are seen exactly as their top views. No angle, nothing. Precisely from above! But the two planes are shown at least 50 km from each other... while the camera is less than 1 km from each of them. Seems like breaking some serious laws of nature to me... unless the drone keeps meandering while the fighter keeps shooting (without moving) and the Boeing froze in the air. Or perhaps, each of the planes had a drone hovering above ;-)

  59. I don't watch Channel One but I assure you that all the Czech media where I saw the reports published exactly the same stories - of the same impact - that referred on the fakeness/problems with the picture, just like I did.

    Be sure that this won't make me introduce selective censorship that you so openly propose.

  60. I don't understand how a man as brilliant as you can be so willing to believe obviously false Russian propaganda, just to feed your obsessive hatred of the West.

    I guess it's similar to how one can be an intelligent scientist and still believe in magical Jewish zombies.

  61. I love the West - and I *am* the West, unlike inappropriate intruders and parasites such as yourself.

    There is no evidence that this picture was created as "Russian propaganda" and before problems were found, it couldn't have been "obviously false". Similar things may only be "obvious" to racist scumbags.

  62. Dear Nancy,

    I don't think any of us is wording this very well (including me to be sure).

    "...apparent sizes of the flask versus the object..."

    What 'flask' [is that a typo?], and what object?

    Anyway ....

    "These images were taken from different distances."

    Ignoring the drama unfolding below, if some balloonist had told me he took that (possibly cropped) shot from say 5,000 ft above with his iPhone and I had no other reason to disbelieve him, then I wouldn't immediately take it as a fake, at least not on account merely of the relative size of the aircraft to the background land features*.

    In other words, what I'm saying here is that, PROVIDED the shot were claimed to have been taken from a height of at most only a few thousand feet above the two aircraft, then the thing is not OBVIOUSLY a fake to my eyes, at least not at first glance. That is, the proportions don't seem outlandish in this case.

    On the other hand, if he told me he took the shot from his private satellite I'd call him a liar (even if I knew he owned one and went up in it) because the ratios then most certainly would be outlandish.

    The point is, if you're claiming it's a fake PURELY on the basis of the ratio of aircraft size to land-feature size [but are you?] then we differ.

    Otherwise I generally agree with you, at least as far as I understand what you seem to be saying (about the ratios and lenses).

    * I have no idea how big those Ukrainian fields are, and I've made no attempt to find out (nor shall I), so all my estimates are pure guesswork. The two planes do look to be about half a mile or so apart though, given that the Boeing is about 200 ft long.

  63. A fair assessment on this blog. Thank you.

    I have a completely different take on this from both sides.

    Look on Google, its an ugly patchwork WITH NO MATCHING CLOUDS!. One lie put to rest. This image is far superior to GE's offering. Obviously the yanks have had their greedy little eyes on the place for a good while due all those dated GE overlays.

    No witnesses saw a BUK smoke trail but they did see fighter jets.

    The fragmentation blast off a BUK is pretty big! This was deffo brought down by an air launched missile - too small. The 30mm cannon holes are elsewhere. Not where the missile blast happened. i.e.

    Another lie is made. The images came off a guy in the USA. So what has "Putins poor attempts at photoshop" got to do with it?

    A fly in the ointment. The missile blew on the port side. Not starboard.
    There is another problem. The image is posted in UTC shows the shadows 1~2 hours in the wrong direction. This image could of been released to discredit Russia. Not a product of Russians. Any media will jump at stuff like this without thinking.

    Big point never publicly made. Putins jet and MH-17 appear very similar indeed from the side if not properly reconnoitred. The shape, size and paintwork are too similar.

    To think the Ukrainians thought they took Putins plane down and going to blame Putins demise on the rebels before they realised the gaff with the wrong plane. BUK? Nice try, no sweetie.

    Oh yes, Ukraine will not release the radar data nor the comms. The investigation is under wraps.

    So I conclude the image has no value but Ukraine shot down the wrong plane.

  64. Funny and sad to see how Czechs and others from the West like to take any Russian justification (propaganda) for real.