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Declassifying The Big Bird
February 28, 2011 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Via Secrecy News:
Millions of feet of film of historical imagery from intelligence satellites may be declassified this year, the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said. "The NGA is anticipating the potential declassification of significant amounts of film-based imagery... in 2011," according to an NGA announcement that solicited contractor interest in converting the declassified film into digital format. It was published in Federal Business Opportunities on February 14, 2011. A copy is posted here (pdf).

For planning purposes, the NGA told potential contractors to assume the need to digitize "approximately 4 million linear feet of film up to approximately 7 inches in width." The imagery is "stored on 500 foot spools, with many frames up to several feet in length." A nominal start date of October 1, 2011 was specified for the digitization project.

The NGA announcement also suggested that the winning contractor would "retain rights to distribute declassified imagery and recoup investment, for a specified period of time (negotiable)." This would be problematic if it implied that the contractor had exclusive access to the declassified film and could prevent others from digitizing selected portions of it.

The declassification of historical intelligence satellite imagery has been largely dormant for many years. President Clinton's 1995 executive order 12951 promised a periodic review of classified imagery "with the objective of making available to the public as much imagery as possible consistent with the interests of national defense and foreign policy." In particular, a review of obsolete film-return systems, such as the KH-8 GAMBIT and the KH-9 HEXAGON, was to be completed within five years. This was not done, or produced no results if it was done.

During her confirmation process to become Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Stephanie O'Sullivan recently noted the existence of an ODNI effort that started last year "to reinvigorate the declassification of imagery for public release." ("Nomination Sheds New Light on Intel Policy," Secrecy News, February 22, 2011).

::Secrecy News
posted by HLD (13 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
To clarify: the "obsolete film-return system" mentioned in the post involves a film canister falling from space, opening up a parachute, and getting caught in mid-air by a giant plane with a loop tied to one end like a god damn Looney Tune. This literally happened.
posted by theodolite at 9:30 AM on February 28, 2011 [7 favorites]


Woh! That delivery sequence is AWESOME. You kids, with your LANDSATS and geoeye's...

*get off my satellite*
posted by stratastar at 9:54 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


theodolite: It's also worth mentioning the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, which was used to recover people in a similar way.
posted by circular at 9:58 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


marked for later, nice find HLD.
posted by clavdivs at 10:46 AM on February 28, 2011


assume the need to digitize "approximately 4 million linear feet of film up to approximately 7 inches in width." The imagery is "stored on 500 foot spools, with many frames up to several feet in length."

As someone who digitizes film all day long, I must say you have to be one of the Big Boys if you have the equipment to digitize 7"-wide film. that's over double the width of 70mm film, the largest roll-film that I know of off-the-shelf digitizers for (used by the movie industry), so either there's some super-specialty equipment out there, or the contractors are going to be making the equipment as they go. The RFP seems to understand that: If there are limitations on handling film widths up to 9 inches...or that which can be achieved with engineering or fabrication of components, software and so forth.

I'm going to forward the bid request to my sales guys anyways, just to see if they catch the technical requirements.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:44 AM on February 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some of the Corona (the precurser to the KH-8) imagery has already been declassified. The existence of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was only declassified in 1992. Some one may have already linked to this article on various NRO program patches, some of which reveal more about the various satellites than intended.

But the absolute very best website I've ever found about any of this is this one. NROjr! Official government website to teach Kindergartners about government surveillance. (tinfoil hat extra)
posted by macfly at 12:25 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lots of fun here. The second KH-1 prototype went wonky... (as did the subsequent eleven or so. But not as amusingly as this): "tested capsule recovery techniques; did not carry camera; capsule recovery failed. Because of a timing error, the US believed that the capsule landed somewhere on the island of Spitsbergen, north of Norway, instead of landing in the recovery zone near Hawaii. The capsule was never found; and CIA officials suspect it may have been snatched by the Soviets. The search for this capsule formed the basis of the book and film 'Ice Station Zebra'.

In the winter of 1960/1961, a US Discovery spy satellite capsule was found by loggers near Kalinin, 200 km north of Moscow. The loggers cracked it open with an axe. Sergei Khrushchev believed this to be the Discoverer 2 capsule. What was left was examined by Soviet engineers but didn’t reveal much information - it was a polished aluminium sphere, 30 cm in diameter, gilded on the exterior. Some said it was found as early as the winter of 1959."

There's an hour-long documentary about Corona - and a short clip of a successful aerial retrieval of the film capsule - here.

Also trying (and failing) to find the reference to the incident which gave the Soviets their entire stock of reconnaissance satellite film courtesy of Eastman Kodak. As they say, pictures or it didn't happen.
posted by Devonian at 1:21 PM on February 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks for all the other great links and stories - cheers Metafilter!
posted by HLD at 2:09 PM on February 28, 2011


The NGA announcement also suggested that the winning contractor would "retain rights to distribute declassified imagery and recoup investment, for a specified period of time (negotiable)." This would be problematic if it implied that the contractor had exclusive access to the declassified film and could prevent others from digitizing selected portions of it.

I don't see what's problematic about it, as long as the period of exclusivity is reasonable. If getting this done is going to require a significant investment (eg building equipment which doesn't exist at present), the investment won't get made without a corresponding incentive. If the film is digitized and returned to the government as its processed then it will remain accessible to non-commercial researchers.

Seems like the easiest way to do it would be to split the film reels into narrower strips and then digitize them using existing telecine machines, which can be had for relatively cheap nowadays due to the declining reliance on film in motion picture production. Reassembly of the full frame images from the partial strips could take place in a computer and would be easily automated. Seems like something that could be set up from scratch for $2-3 million and could yield a return of about $10-15 million, based on commercial rates for that service. Maybe a much better return if there's a lot of other material in the pipeline.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:16 PM on February 28, 2011


This is exciting, I'd like to get a look at the changes in spatial resolution available over time.
posted by schyler523 at 4:03 PM on February 28, 2011


Is anybody going to bet AGAINST Google on this?
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:33 PM on February 28, 2011


No matter who wins the bid, I'd love to be part of the digitizing team. I hope whomever that is reads metafilter.
posted by schyler523 at 6:40 PM on February 28, 2011


I remember how we used to fear the all-seeing read-your-newspaper-over-your-sholder power of the spy satellites in the 80s and earlier.

Then I saw one in the Smithsonian. Learned how it worked.

Haha. Ha. Hahahahaha.

The red scare clearly had people pretty frightened and desperate to spend so much for so little. But, that's always been the nature of spy games. :-/
posted by -harlequin- at 10:56 PM on February 28, 2011


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