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Declassified Photos Reveal CIA’s Deep Sea Rescue of a Spy Satellite
August 9, 2012 1:18 PM   Subscribe

"Only July 10, 1971, America's newest photo reconnaissance satellite, the KH-9 Hexagon, dropped a capsule loaded with film towards the Earth. The reentry vehicle was supposed to open its parachute; an American aircraft would snatch it out of the sky in mid-descent. But the chute was never unfurled. The reentry vehicle hit the Pacific Ocean with a force of approximately 2600 Gs. And then it sunk down into the deep, before settling at 16,000 feet."
posted by brundlefly (40 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Damn. They had DB-25 connectors back then.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:24 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Trieste II's divers were told a cover story: that they were looking for an instrument package from the academic Scrips Institute that was sensitive to light, and therefore had to be covered by a black shroud.

Hahaha how hard must the divers have rolled their eyes at this
posted by MangyCarface at 1:25 PM on August 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Damn. They had DB-25 connectors back then.

We didn't need no new fangled USB connectors. USA worked just fine.
posted by hal9k at 1:33 PM on August 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Why wouldn't they just shoot another series? Sure, that's a few weeks work lost, but they spent close to a year trying to get this film back. Seems like it would've been too far out of date to be worth much by the time they actually got it up.
posted by echo target at 1:34 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


HANDLE VIA BYEMAN
CONTROL SYSTEM ONLY

posted by zamboni at 1:36 PM on August 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Because you can tell a lot from the differences between successive images echo target I suspect.
posted by pharm at 1:37 PM on August 9, 2012


The Trieste II's divers were told a cover story: that they were looking for an instrument package from the academic Scrips Institute that was sensitive to light, and therefore had to be covered by a black shroud.

They were probably worried about a sudden, inexplicable convergence of a large number of angler fish. I know it's kept me up nights...
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 1:38 PM on August 9, 2012


They had DB-25 connectors back then.

Back then DB-25 was state of the art.
posted by localroger at 1:38 PM on August 9, 2012


On the off chance it got discovered / washed ashore / caught in a net, the satellite's imaging capabililities would be known.
posted by zippy at 1:39 PM on August 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why wouldn't they just shoot another series? Sure, that's a few weeks work lost, but they spent close to a year trying to get this film back. Seems like it would've been too far out of date to be worth much by the time they actually got it up.
They probably did. But it was worth making an effort to recover the lost film. If you want to track the development of foreign military assets (or the development of anything, really) then it is helpful to have a series of pictures in time. Did the USSR always have that giant airbase, or did they build it in the last six months? Even if that film was useless, either developing deep-sea recovery techniques and understanding their costs would be extremely useful for future missions.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:44 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was hoping for pictures of aliens in the deep like James Cameron told me. Cool nevertheless.
posted by tigrefacile at 1:51 PM on August 9, 2012


Back then DB-25 was state of the art.

Some designs are classics and require no improvement.
posted by BeeDo at 1:53 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


As someone who has gone swimming with a roll of film in my pocket, I could have told them they weren't going to get any images back after nine months at the bottom of the ocean.
posted by j03 at 1:55 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why wouldn't they just shoot another series? Sure, that's a few weeks work lost, but they spent close to a year trying to get this film back. Seems like it would've been too far out of date to be worth much by the time they actually got it up.
It was probably worth the effort even just to destroy it on the seafloor so that the russians wouldn't pick it up...
posted by kickingtheground at 2:04 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


And then it sunk down into the deep...

sank
posted by gurple at 2:06 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


As someone who has gone swimming with a roll of film in my pocket, I could have told them they weren't going to get any images back after nine months at the bottom of the ocean.

As someone who has hit the Pacific Ocean with a force of approximately 2600 Gs, I could have told them they weren't going to get any images back.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:16 PM on August 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


This recovery was practice. Just a few years later, the Navy and CIA would attempt to recover the lost Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129, which sank in 1968, also in 16,000 feet of water. They nearly succeeded, and also it was nearly a nuclear catastrophe.

tigrefacial, you should check out the Charles Stross/HP Lovecraft version of aliens in the deep sea (from Stross's "Laundry" novels) -- you'll never stick your toe in the water ever again, even with the Third Benthic Treaty in place.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:25 PM on August 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


As someone who used to be a photo reconnaissance satellite, I could have told them... ah, forget it.
posted by NordyneDefenceDynamics at 2:30 PM on August 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


At first, I thought 2600 Gs sounded like a typo (and the article has lots -- "would" is spelled "wound" half the time), but it turns out it's a reasonable amount of acceleration.
posted by jiawen at 2:42 PM on August 9, 2012


I have to say that the entire concept of packaging spy satellite film in a re-entry vehicle, and then nabbing the film by plane seems incredibly retro-cool, as does the efforts back then to recover the lost film. It's such a GI Joe vibe...

And then there's this:

This highly unusual Soviet surge deployment into the Pacific was correctly analysed by U.S. intelligence as probably in reaction to a submarine loss. U.S. SOSUS Naval Facilities (NAVFACs) in the North Pacific were alerted and requested to review recent acoustic records to identify any possible associated signal. Several SOSUS arrays recorded a possibly related event on 8 March 1968, and upon examination produced sufficient triangulation by lines-of-bearing to provide the U.S. Navy with a locus for the probable wreck site. One source characterized the acoustic signal as "an isolated, single sound of an explosion or implosion, 'a good-sized bang'."[3]:205 The acoustic event is claimed to have originated from near 40 N, 180th longitude.[3]

Soviet search efforts, lacking the equivalent of the U.S. SOSUS system, proved unable to locate K-129, and eventually Soviet naval activity in the North Pacific returned to normal. K-129 was subsequently declared lost with all hands.
With the aid of SOSUS triangulation, American intelligence resources would later locate the K-129 wreck, photograph it in-situ at its 16,000-foot (4,900 m) depth, and (several years later) partially salvage it.


It's so incredible that the US navy was able to figure out what happened, figure out where it happened, and then try a recovery operation. Amazing.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:08 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


One reason they were so interested in recovering it was probably the physical optics of the camera. My understanding is that the west was way ahead in this area.
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:41 PM on August 9, 2012


Why wouldn't they just shoot another series? Sure, that's a few weeks work lost, but they spent close to a year trying to get this film back. Seems like it would've been too far out of date to be worth much by the time they actually got it up.

Ah, but just think of the budget justification for next year!
posted by BlueHorse at 4:15 PM on August 9, 2012


One wonders what they have floating around up there as we speak.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 4:58 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


NASA was just given a couple of Hubble-class telescopes -- for free, as basically surplus crap not needed -- by the National Reconnaissance Office.

Extrapolate from there...
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:07 PM on August 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Imagine what Stanley Kubrick could have done with those, if he was still alive today!
posted by b1tr0t at 5:51 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Kraken Wakes, rubs his ass where the capsule hit it, then shrugs and rolls over.
posted by Artful Codger at 6:27 PM on August 9, 2012


One wonders what they have floating around up there as we speak.

Cyborg sharks with gamma ray lasers mounted on their frikken heads.
posted by localroger at 6:36 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The intelligence on the film may or may not have been useless, but the technology was still highly classified. We snatched our capsules out of the air, or else let them hit the water. The Soviet photo recon satellites all landed inside the Soviet Union, what they called "hard landings." Some landed harde than others, what they called "cratering."

The Byeman control system covered other satellite-based programs, as well as the photo recon stuff. This was all tasked by the NSA.
posted by mule98J at 7:45 PM on August 9, 2012


For another look at the K-129 incident:
http://www.mikekemble.com/misc/k129.html
posted by mule98J at 7:47 PM on August 9, 2012


No comment.
posted by Glomar response at 9:11 PM on August 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


...Unlike NASA.
posted by ostranenie at 12:52 AM on August 10, 2012


Screw the rescue opp, I want to know how the hell they were going to catch the damn descending thing in mid air with a (supposedly) prop plane. I mean, was the plane towing a huge net or something?
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:48 AM on August 10, 2012


No comment.
posted by Glomar response at 9:11 PM on August 9 [2 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]

Surely you meant to say "I can neither confirm nor deny".
posted by kcds at 4:42 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


In response to your question, allkindsoftime:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-air_retrieval
posted by defcom1 at 5:18 AM on August 10, 2012


wouldn't a free-falling capsule be falling with a force of one g, by definition?
posted by UrbanEye at 6:56 AM on August 10, 2012


wouldn't a free-falling capsule be falling with a force of one g, by definition?

It's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop.
posted by zamboni at 7:50 AM on August 10, 2012


I'm trying to imagine the stand-off in "Ice Station Zebra" taking place on the ocean floor.
posted by detachd at 8:06 AM on August 10, 2012


My dad was involved in replacing the mid-air capture technique with LASER transmission of data. He couldn't tell us anything about it until the mid-90's when he shared this tid-bit with me sitting at the campfire in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:23 AM on August 10, 2012


Holy crap, 60 miles of 6.6" wide film.

dunkadunc writes "They had DB-25 connectors back then."
localroger writes "Back then DB-25 was state of the art."

The D series of connectors was invented in 1952, the B denotes case size. By 1970 DB-25 was old tech.
posted by Mitheral at 7:30 PM on August 12, 2012


By 1970 DB-25 was old tech.

Well, it was mature tech. It was the gold standard for miniature data connectors until really pretty recently; nearly all printer cables used DB on the PC end, whether parallel or serial, until USB started to be practical in the late 90's. DB25 supplanted Centronics on the PC end of parallel printer cables because of size; DB25 and DB9 both remain the main standards for serial cables today, although they've become a bit wasteful compared to alternatives. From the labels the satellite connectors obviously aren't such a standard, but DB was used because it was the best small high-reliability connector available. State of the art.

Bear in mind that those connectors went into orbit; if there was anything smaller, lighter, and as reliable it would have been used instead bar the expense.
posted by localroger at 4:22 PM on August 13, 2012


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