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I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me
September 19, 2011 11:33 AM   Subscribe

The secretive NRO celebrated 50 years of spying from space with a one-day surprise public exhibition of a just-declassified KH-9 Hexagon "Big Bird" imaging satellite. Between 1963 and 1986, a constellation of KH-7 Gambit, KH-8 Gambit 3, and KH-9 Hexagon satellites, all revealed after a half-century of secrecy, returned high-resolution film exposures of Cold War targets from orbit by parachute.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (49 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm wary of propaganda posts by Chinese Jet Pilots. Those Chi-Coms are dangerous.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:35 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


My kingdom for a "best of" gallery of hi-res images.
posted by NoMich at 11:42 AM on September 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Cool post! I liked this part:

It was also somewhat surreal to actually see this monster. 60 feet long at 10 feet in diameter it is longer than anything ever put into a Space Shuttle cargo bay.

It's hard to imagine how they got it into orbit.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:44 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Agreed, NoMich, I'm actually very curious about what the images these things produced looked like (i.e level of detail). Pics or it didn't happen!
posted by Hoopo at 11:45 AM on September 19, 2011


This is really fantastic news, and a total surprise. I'm amazed that they are actually exhibiting the hardware, instead of just declassifying "the existence of the program".

From the FAS article:
In addition, “almost all” of the voluminous historical intelligence imagery captured by the KH-9 is expected to be released.
This will be fascinating, and I can't wait to have a look. What will be really interesting is whenever they declassify KH-11, which will be who knows when, because then we'll finally know just how similar it is in design to Hubble. There have always been rumors about similarities, but they're impossible to confirm.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:48 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I worked on the Misty spy satellite program (I had a bit part), which came much later, and we actually did use the space shuttle (Atlantis) to get our payload up there. There was some sort of faked power outage, as I remember it, during which the satellite was deployed. When communication came back online, the payload was gone.

I love the idea of retro rocket packages via parachute! By the time Misty came around, we had your cliche banks of monitors to review the imagery.

I think I can say all this…
posted by scamper at 11:50 AM on September 19, 2011 [19 favorites]


From the wiki page, it seems the satellite was only in orbit for 1-6 months (one link said upto 9), and then would fall into decay orbit.

So were they used for a specific mission (ie take pictures of this), or sent up for general recon (and were then told what pictures to take ?).

And that re-entry part means the satellite could be reused ? (was it?)

Or are these all questions that no one really knows given the secrecy ?
posted by k5.user at 11:51 AM on September 19, 2011


Jonah Goldberg is spying on me from space??

OK I guess that isn't that surprising.
posted by Eyebeams at 11:54 AM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I dug around for info on the KH-9 and KH-11 on Saturday night after reading the SpaceRef article. What's really interesting is that the first non-film-based KH-11 spy sat camera only had a resolution of 800x800 - but then that was in 1976.
posted by mrbill at 11:59 AM on September 19, 2011


In the 70's even our spy satellites were avocado green.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 12:01 PM on September 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


NOW imagine how many more spy satellites we have sent into space when we send up those labelled classified. Add to that number those sent along with "research" space exploration sites but containing cameras to be tested. Then add to that pile those sent by a lot of other nations.
All that stuff floating about is the reason I will not explore out space any time soon.
posted by Postroad at 12:02 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, GlobalSecurity's spy sat page has a TON of cool info.
posted by mrbill at 12:03 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


All that stuff floating about is the reason I will not explore out space any time soon.

So, just to be clear, you had space exploration plans of your own, but you shelved them because there are too many spy satellites in orbit...?
posted by pts at 12:04 PM on September 19, 2011 [11 favorites]


It was also somewhat surreal to actually see this monster. 60 feet long at 10 feet in diameter it is longer than anything ever put into a Space Shuttle cargo bay.

It's hard to imagine how they got it into orbit.


On top of a Titan IIID. There are wikipedia articles for the various satellites: Hexagon, Keyhole, et.c.

If you go to the Kennedy Space Center, there's an enormous spiraling ramp that has a plaque for every shuttle mission. Several are/were classified.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-51-C
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-51-J
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-27
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-28
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-33
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-36
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-38
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-53
posted by zamboni at 12:05 PM on September 19, 2011


It's hard to imagine how they got it into orbit.

Titan IIID. Take a Titan III, bolt on two very large solid motors (which makes it the very powerful Titan IIIC,) and remove the third stage, which limits it to LEO missions only, but can put 12,000kg into LEO and handle very long payloads.

You'd think it was almost customized for the KH-9, and you'd be right. A later version stretched the 1st and 2nd stages (Titan 34D) and put 14,500kg into LEO.
posted by eriko at 12:15 PM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Jonah Goldberg is spying on me from space??

He must have heard that you were talking shit about him. Jabba the Hack has put a bounties on his enemies heads for less. Best to lay low for awhile, probably somewhere cold with a lot of ice.
posted by homunculus at 12:19 PM on September 19, 2011


Yeah, I was also hoping we would get to see some of the photos too, but I suspect the brass at the Pentagon has enough throbbing forehead veins what with the photo of the hardware being out there.

I ration my Onion visits now, so apologies if the obvious reference doesn't work for y'all.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:34 PM on September 19, 2011


The secretive NRO celebrated 50 years of spying from space

So overjoyed were we in my family that we all ran outside, little candles on a cake, and waved ecstatically at the heavens while singing Happy Birthday.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:36 PM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


returned high-resolution film exposures of Cold War targets from orbit by parachute

lol what? This makes me imagine nuclear submarines communicating with Navy HQ using carrier pigeons, but I guess digital imagining is still pretty new huh?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:37 PM on September 19, 2011


Not to mention they had to keep shipping coal up (by zeppelin, as was the fashion) to keep the boiler stoked.
posted by LordSludge at 12:52 PM on September 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


Time to watch Ice Station Zebra again, it seems.
posted by detachd at 1:06 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


it seems the satellite was only in orbit for 1-6 months (one link said upto 9), and then would fall into decay orbit.

So were they used for a specific mission (ie take pictures of this), or sent up for general recon (and were then told what pictures to take ?).

And that re-entry part means the satellite could be reused ? (was it?)


They were sent up on a rolling schedule so there would always be some smallish number in orbit. This would give the military coverage of any individual location on a regular calendar.

Eventually they would decay from orbit and burn up in the atmosphere (that kind of re-entry). They were not re-usable. The point of the USAF participation in the shuttle program was to be able to place similar satellites in orbit and pluck them back out again, but that largely never worked out due to the real-world flight rate of the shuttle program.

I don't think it was really possible to send up a spysat for any individual specific mission, although you might have wanted, say, one more in orbit if you were starting a big combat operation like the Persian Gulf War. The timing just wasn't possible (these take months, if not years, to build). But they would have polar orbits, so anywhere on Earth would be subject to surveillance eventually.

lol what?

Well, yes, the expense and difficulty of the film return was actually a major impetus toward improving digital imaging technology, much of which was later repurposed for the civilian space program (in the same way that Hubble was, in many ways, a repurposed Keyhole satellite aimed up instead of down).
posted by dhartung at 1:12 PM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


EndsOfInvention: It's crazier than you think. They'd eject the film canister, which would fall through the atmosphere, deploying a parachute to slow its descent, whereupon an Air Force plane would literally snatch it out of midair before it could hit the ground.
posted by pts at 1:15 PM on September 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


They'd eject the film canister, which would fall through the atmosphere, deploying a parachute to slow its descent, whereupon an Air Force plane would literally snatch it out of midair before it could hit the ground.

I had never given much though to imaging satellites in the pre-digital age, but that is Rube-Goldbergesque. I especially like the details about how the canisters, if they could not be intercepted in midair, were designed to float for a short time and then sink: the water was kept back with a plug made of salt. It is like the components of a trap in a Saw movie.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:21 PM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


It is like the components of a trap in a Saw movie.

No, it's just engineering. It wasn't intended to be perverse Heath Robinsonry, but a reasonable solution using available resources. It may not be digital, but it's not like they're knocking out Clovis points or anything.
posted by zamboni at 1:40 PM on September 19, 2011


We've got the engineering chops to pull off that crazy satellite film retrieval scheme, but not to make renewables work out, eh? Humanity sure is something.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:41 PM on September 19, 2011


We've got the engineering chops to pull off that crazy satellite film retrieval scheme, but not to make renewables work out, eh?

Crazy retrieval schemes don't involve massive, nationwide infrastructure investment. If the defense contractors could make a strong enough case that the infrastructure for renewable energy is of sufficient military value, your house would be sipping wind and solar electricity so fast your head would spin.
posted by chimaera at 1:46 PM on September 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


The declassified docs and stuff are on the NRO site. Mostly very large scanned PDFs and a couple of Quicktime movies.
posted by smackfu at 1:53 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Awwwww, Big Bird, you disappoint me.
posted by Splunge at 1:55 PM on September 19, 2011


(Those docs actually still have a lot of random redactions. I can see why people get very intrigued reading through declassified stuff that suddenly blacked-out paragraphs.)
posted by smackfu at 1:57 PM on September 19, 2011


The interesting thing about the film-recovery trick is that it's nearly the same procedure that was going to be used to recover the 'solar wind' samples onboard the Genesis. When Genesis crashed, there was a lot of monday-morning-quarterbacking about the perceived ridiculousness of how the samples were returned, which involved snatching them from midair as they floated down by parachute. Many people assumed that this was a basically-untested method of returning objects from space.

Of course, that's not the case: a similar recovery method was used and basically perfected by the USAF and the NRO starting in the 60s for the Corona capsules ... but at the time of Genesis' launch and crash, the program had only been declassified for a few years and few people (at least that I knew) were aware of it, or the number of midair-recovery missions that had been flown.

As it turned out, Genesis cratered not because of any inherent flaws in the recovery method, but because the parachute simply didn't open correctly. Had it opened, it probably would have worked just fine.

Incidentally, I've always been suspicious whether the "stunt pilots" reportedly employed by NASA for the Genesis recovery were really career stunt pilots ... or whether they happened to have some lines on their resume related to the Corona or its follow-on programs with the NRO. If you wanted pilots with experience catching things in midair, those are the people you'd want to recruit.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:02 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why does it have windows? Those are windows right? It looks like it has camera gear underneath, but...I am unsure. Anyone know the deal?
posted by zerobyproxy at 2:19 PM on September 19, 2011


Each 30,000-pound satellite carried 60 miles of film that moved through a pressurized path up to 16 feet per second during imaging operations, according to the NRO.

Here I'd envisioned a space-going camera with a little button that somebody at the NRO would press to take a snapshot, not an orbiting movie camera minigun.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 2:21 PM on September 19, 2011


Why does it have windows?

As I understand it, the satellite displayed yesterday was built for ground use and instruction, and the windows were added for that purpose. They aren't on the real bird.
posted by Mcable at 2:28 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Esteemed Offendi: In the 70's even our spy satellites were avocado green.

Yes, but there were Harvest Gold and Coppertone options also.
posted by Mcable at 2:31 PM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow, great post! Also nice to see that Tom Dixon designed the KH-9 Heat shield interior.
posted by ouke at 4:11 PM on September 19, 2011


There is an episode of IT conversations with Ronald J. Ondrejka on the history of Corona in the 1960s. It is fascinating.

A quote from it that is remarkable is:
In One Day we covered more sites and took more imagery than 4 years of U2 flights.
The talk goes into a little of the difficulties they overcame in doing this stuff. The importance of the NRO in allowing verification of missile counts is also pointed out.
posted by sien at 4:16 PM on September 19, 2011


an Air Force plane would literally snatch it out of midair before it could hit the ground.

Whoah. Can anyone tell me what this mission looks like?

I'm guessing you use a big slow cargo plane for this but besides that I can't visualize how this would work at all.
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:00 PM on September 19, 2011


Whoah. Can anyone tell me what this mission looks like?
Like this.
Humans are awesome.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 5:15 PM on September 19, 2011


Whoa. From the bottom of that last link:

Russia continues operating spy satellites with returnable film canisters.

Huh.
posted by jquinby at 6:09 PM on September 19, 2011


It would be good to note that Keyhole was privatized as Keyhole Corp who charged subscription to access the satellite imagery. Google buys Keyhole Corp and renames their software Google Earth and incorporates their imagery in Google Maps.

press release for Keyhole acquisition:
http://www.google.com/press/pressrel/keyhole.html
posted by pez_LPhiE at 6:52 PM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


(Which is where the 'k' in .kml comes from, IIRC.)

but at the time of Genesis' launch and crash, the program had only been declassified for a few years and few people (at least that I knew) were aware of it,

It crashed in, what, 2004? Pretty sure film-capsule return stuff had been in Tom Clancy novels for a decade or so. I know when I heard of the Genesis sample-return capsule, I thought "Hey, it's like those old Cold War spy satellites!" and I'm not much of a spy-technology buff.
posted by hattifattener at 8:40 PM on September 19, 2011


Is it a stretch to imagine that those payload vehicles could have been swapped out carry warheads instead. The whole the vehicle looks oversized for its stated purpose.
posted by vicx at 2:30 AM on September 20, 2011


It would be good to note that Keyhole was privatized as Keyhole Corp who charged subscription to access the satellite imagery.

Don't think that is right: The name "Keyhole" is also a homage to the KH reconnaissance satellites, the original eye-in-the-sky military reconnaissance system now some 30 years old.
posted by smackfu at 4:34 AM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't think that is right: The name "Keyhole" is also a homage to the KH reconnaissance satellites, the original eye-in-the-sky military reconnaissance system now some 30 years old.

Hmmmm.. I remembered reading that the Keyhole satellites were decommissioned military satellites because the new ones were so much better. So good they can read car license plates from space so they didn't need these old ones anymore. I read it during the time Google acquired Keyhole. I could be wrong though but that's what I remembered.
posted by pez_LPhiE at 6:11 AM on September 20, 2011


No, it's just engineering.

Oh, I realize and appreciate that. It is just odd to think lf things going into space and using the sort of technical solutions that would have seemed cutting edge to Archimedes.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:05 AM on September 20, 2011


Is it a stretch to imagine that those payload vehicles could have been swapped out carry warheads instead. The whole the vehicle looks oversized for its stated purpose.

Nah. I mean, any orbital missile platform would have had much the same general scale -- it's a matter of putting things up there that have room not just for their own payload but for things like solar arrays and attitude control (including a fuel reservoir), all while meeting maximum size and weight limits for available launch systems. The KH-9 was jam-packed with equipment for its stated purpose. One of the linked articles had a link which should have been in this post, to Charles Vick's Big Bird drawings.

The US and USSR were both bound by the Outer Space Treaty, signed 1966, so any deployment would have been an enormous provocation. There are also some basic operational limitations to space launch platforms, and the US had most of the advantages in this particular race, so didn't need something like this, whereas the USSR strongly considered a couple of options to offset our position. The Soviet FOBS came somewhat close to implementation, but it's really just a souped up ICBM that enters "fractional orbit" instead of a suborbital transcontinental path. Next could have been Polyus, a system that would allow a missile to be "pre-launched" and let it sit in orbit until needed. Neither actually happened.
posted by dhartung at 1:12 PM on September 20, 2011


Would a space based system even be better than a ballistic sub?
posted by smackfu at 1:31 PM on September 20, 2011


If you ask me? Not really. It's hard to know where the enemy's subs are, although both sides try (or definitely tried quite hard during the Cold War), whereas an identified nuclear platform is sort of trivially tracked and targeted. The major advantage a space platform would have would be evading anti-missile defenses, but it would only be good for a first strike strategy, whereas one would hope that at least some of one's sub platforms would survive to support a second strike strategy.

The one country that would almost indisputably benefit from a space launch platform would be Israel, which theoretically risks an overrun strategy (due to lacking strategic depth), and has few foes who would be capable of countering such technology.
posted by dhartung at 5:05 PM on September 20, 2011


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