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Spy agency pulls back cloak on secret Cold War satellites

September 19, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Held as state secrets for a half-century, three American spy satellites were brought to light this weekend by the U.S. government after serving the nation's intelligence programs at the height of the Cold War.

A newly-released photo of a KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellite being lifted for testing before launch. Credit: NRO
The spy projects collected high-resolution snapshots of the former Soviet Union, China and other global hot spots from 1963 until 1984. Hardened film canisters parachuted back to Earth for pick-up by aircraft, a recovery method that stands in contrast to spy satellites in today's high-tech digital age.

The National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government spy satellite agency, revealed the KH-7 GAMBIT, KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and KH-9 HEXAGON imaging satellite programs in a ceremony Saturday at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.

Hardware from the programs were put on display for one day only, including a full-sized satellite model of the 60-foot-long KH-9 HEXAGON spacecraft, a platform affectionately known as Big Bird.

The "KH" prefix stands for Key Hole, the long-standing name of the NRO's photo reconnaissance satellites.

The unveiling coincided with the 50th birthday of the NRO, whose mere existence went unacknowledged by the government until 1992.

Early NRO photo reconnaissance satellites, including the CORONA program that pioneered spying from space, were declassified in 1995. The next series of satellites had to wait 16 years to see the light of day.

The NRO not only released data on the capabilities of each satellite program, but officials also declassified approximately 100 files containing detailed histories, once-secret memos between the NRO and the CIA, and photos of satellites being prepared for launch.

The KH-7 GAMBIT program created sharper imagery of Soviet missile bases, airfields and strategic sites. CORONA was unable to survey those locations with enough clarity to yield up-to-date data on troop and equipment movements.

A newly-released photo of a U.S. military aircraft retrieving a film capsule under parachute. Credit: NRO
President Eisenhower ramped up the development of spy satellites in the wake of the Soviet Union's shootdown of a U-2 spy plane with Gary Powers in 1960.

The NRO launched 38 KH-7 GAMBIT payloads from July 1963 to June 1967. The spy agency counts 28 of those missions as successful, according to a fact sheet released Saturday.

The KH-7 GAMBIT satellites carried a 77-inch focal length camera developed by Eastman Kodak. From altitudes as low as 60 nautical miles, the camera's image products had a resolution of about 3 feet.

"Intelligence users often characterized this capability as surveillance, allowing the United States to track the advancement of Soviet and others' capabilities," said a fact sheet issued by the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, an NRO-sanctioned body that helps oversee the declassification of the agency's historic programs.

They each carried a single re-entry capsule, limiting their mission to about one week once all the film was used up.

Spy satellite engineers outfitted the next generation of top secret sleuths with two film recovery capsules and an upgraded Eastman Kodak camera with twice the focal length as previous spacecraft.

KH-8 GAMBIT 3 satellites launched 54 times from 1966 until 1986, dropping film back to Earth twice each mission to be scooped up by an airplane. The better camera allowed the GAMBIT 3 satellites to spot features smaller than 2 feet on the ground.

Diagram describing the major components of the formerly top secret KH-9 HEXAGON imaging satellite. Credit: NRO
Both GAMBIT series required an Agena D upper stage for maneuvers and attitude control in orbit, but the NRO's next phase of spy satellites were colossal 60-foot-long spacecraft, too massive for all but the the most powerful rockets in America's fleet.

The size of a school bus, the KH-9 HEXAGON could spend up to 9 months snapping photos with its high-resolution imaging camera or a wider angle mapping camera for context imagery.

The spy agency launched KH-9 HEXAGON satellites 20 times, with the only major blemish on the program's record being a catastrophic rocket explosion nine seconds after liftoff on the final mission in 1986.

With four recoverable film buckets, the top secret HEXAGON series could send home packets of imagery every couple of months for nearly a year.

One frame from HEXAGON's camera would cover a sliver of the Earth stretching from Washington to Cincinnati, Ohio. 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.

The U.S. government transitioned to electro-optical imaging satellites with the first launch of the KH-11 satellite series in 1976. Those spacecraft store digital image files on-board and relay them to ground stations for analysis.

Russia continues operating spy satellites with returnable film canisters.

Note: Page is no longer available on Spaceflight Now. Contents retreived from Internet Wayback Machine.

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