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NRO Declassifies KH-9 Satellite 74

schwit1 writes "The Big Bird, formally known as the KH-9 Hexagon satellite, was first placed in orbit in 1971 after its development by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), making it one of the most advanced spy satellites of its time. It is believed to have produced images of the Soviet Union, China and other countries that held strategic importance for the U.S. government through the Cold War. But it was never seen outside the intelligence community. This weekend, it will be available for all in the Washington area to see, but only for one day. To celebrate its 50-year anniversary, the NRO, along with the Smithsonian Institution, is for the first time publicly displaying the newly declassified relic at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. In doing so, the intelligence agency is prompting more than just a little bit of excitement among reconnaissance experts and technical hobbyists."
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NRO Declassifies KH-9 Satellite

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  • It will be on display for another 4 hours and 2 minutes. Better hurry.

    • ...before it goes back into the Disney Vault!

    • It tends to piss me off how these sorts of things are pretty much always on the East Coast. I'd love to see the satellite, but flying clear across country isn't in my budget.

      • by leenks ( 906881 )

        Yeah. Because it isn't like the people on the East Coast get pissed off at the stuff that's only on the West Coast, is it? Let alone people like me from the UK that can't get to see any of it...

        • Like what specifically. The only things I can think of are funded solely or in large part by the various governments out here.Other things like Disney Land are out east as well.

          What's more, this was funded by federal tax dollars, I personally see no reason why it should be restricted to a one day viewing on the East Coast.

      • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

        FUCK! Something awesome finally happens across town today, and I just find out about it now?! My day has been WASTED... like all those people who were at the UMCP game today causing all that traffic.

        At least I was around the last time something awesome happened in this area, when a fully outfitted DeLorean from Back to the Future complete with a Mr. Fusion passed me on the I-270 spur...

    • by Divebus ( 860563 )

      Just ran out and looked at it today. Jeez - its the size of a school bus. Half of it is returnable film capsules the size of a Volkswagen [Beetle]. The underside looks like a gas furnace, which may well be a gigantic bellows camera.

  • What I didn't find in either article: What resolution did those satellites have?

    • by chill ( 34294 )

      The satellite allowed the intelligence community to capture the highest-quality imagery it had ever gotten with low-resolution camera, Vick said. It also allowed analysts to get a look at huge swathes of territory with fewer pictures â" a single frame covered about 370 nautical miles, roughly the equivalent of the distance from Cincinnati to Washington.

      • The satellite allowed the intelligence community to capture the highest-quality imagery it had ever gotten with low-resolution camera, Vick said. It also allowed analysts to get a look at huge swathes of territory with fewer pictures â" a single frame covered about 370 nautical miles, roughly the equivalent of the distance from Cincinnati to Washington.

        That says nothing about the resolution. That is, whatz detail could you see.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          It is analog film. You measure resolution by the level of detail and the smallest objects you can make out.

          • by maeka ( 518272 )

            It is analog film. You measure resolution by the level of detail and the smallest objects you can make out.

            No, you measure film resolution in lp/mm.

            • No. lp/mm is just related to scanning, if you scan at 1600 SPI it's the same whether there is increased detail or not. And the answer is going to depend a great deal on the size of the particular frames. For some purposes I'm sure it was quite useful, I'm sure that the generals would have killed for that information in WWII when tracking troop movements and placement of various infrastructure.

              • Simply wrong.
                One measures film's resolving power in lp/mm (or lines, but many in line pairs).
                If you don't believe the wikipedia entry on photographic film perhaps Ilford's?

          • by Surt ( 22457 )

            That must have been inconvenient to develop.

            • I believe they actually dropped the film in capsules back to earth to be developed. Inconvenience really doesn't bother the intelligence community.
          • It is analog film. You measure resolution by the level of detail and the smallest objects you can make out.

            The resolution may have been limited by the film, or by the optics. And I didn't ask for how it is measured, but what it was. And yes, what interest me is what size of object could be seen.

        • For security, no one is allowed to see the captured imagery. You can digitize and store at as high of a resolution as you like, limited only by how much memory you allocate. Special memory is needed.


        • Re:Resolution (Score:5, Informative)

          by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @04:08PM (#37430452) Homepage Journal

          Consumer-grade 35mm film has about 3000 grains per inch average, so each frame has a granularity of about 4000x3000. However, the photochemical process by which grains are exposed and fixed does not happen on a regular grid (like pixels do), and favors clustering of grains especially at edges. There is a nominally (except for texture of the backing medium) infinite degree of subgrain positions exposed grains can get fixed to when developed.

          So while a 370NM distance might be covered by 4000 grains, about 171 meters per grain, the shapes defined by grains around features in the subject could possibly represent much finer sizes, perhaps down to several dozen feet.

          Another factor is the nature of the subject. If you can tell from a fuzzy zoom simply whether or not a shape is dark or light, you might be able to tell whether a garage door (or missile silo) is open or closed, or empty or full. You might be able to tell that a light is on in an office at night. You might be able to tell that a line of tanks is arrayed, not a chainlink fence. A big part is the human eye and mind's ability to recognize shapes in fuzzy analog blotches, especially from a short list of possible answers. Which is what the majority of intelligence relies on: getting context, not just the target data, and making reasonable inferences.

          • If you read the linked Washington Post article, they mention that the 370 NM camera is for the the low-resolution camera. In the article, they brag that it was the then widest angle reconnaissance camera. The high-resolution, and therefore narrow field, camera had a resolution of 2' 6". There is also a description of a counter-rotating optic system, which would indicate to me that they were using a scanning-style panoramic camera yielding a much larger film area than 24mm x 36mm. If I had to guess (with
      • 370 nautical miles are long, but not that long. Perhaps it might be pointed out to those not living on the East Coast, that they mean Washington D.C. the one with a population and area a fraction of the one of Washington.

    • What resolution did those satellites have?

      We could tell you, but then we'd have to kill you.

    • by Hadlock ( 143607 )

      Something like 20 ft. You could pick out a row of houses, new factory construction, new warship construction, tank battalion movements, etc; but if you wanted to say, take a picture of Brezhnev's motorcade every tuesday from his house at 6am, that might be difficult (depending on the size of the motorcade). But if he moved, you wouldn't know until the next batch of film was dropped and developed.

      • Thanks. Now I've got an idea what these satellites were able to do.

      • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @03:34PM (#37430292)

        Declassification is partially just time, the government keeps things classified for a large number of years to make it more likely that the information is no longer useful. However they do look and see even for older stuff if it is still sensitive. It is not automatic after a certain period, just possible.

        Well for these satellites, the answer is no. Commercial satellites can get about a half meter these days (the GeoEye-1 is the one I know of that can). As such revealing that the US has a sat that could do 6 meters isn't revealing anything sensitive. That there are commercial half-meter satellites means you know the government has imagery at least that good (as they could simply buy one if they lacked better technology of their own).

        • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 17, 2011 @04:18PM (#37430482)

          As such revealing that the US has a sat that could do 6 meters isn't revealing anything sensitive.

          That's not necessarily true.

          It's true that revealing our capabilities 40 years ago doesn't provide our adversaries with any technical advantage to use against us today. "Film! How quaint!"

          But it might reveal things from 40 years ago that do have impact on present-day policy. Somewhere in the KGB/FSB, someone might have made a decision about whether or we knew about $FOO in the 70s because we had a highly-detailed pictures of it from space, because we had a mole onsite working on the $FOO project, or because we just made a lucky guess.

          Suppose they believed that we had half-meter resolution on Specific Date, 1971 and ascribed the leak to spy satellites. But today, they know that our 1971 satellites couldn't have compromised $FOO to the degree that they did because they just weren't good enough. Time to dig open those dusty file folders and re-evaluate who had access to $FOO, because if any of those people are working on the brand-new super-secret $BAR project, and after a 40-year career, probably have access to $BAR today than they did to $FOO in the 70s.

          Also consider the answer to "Why did country X do something 35 years ago" might be very useful if you knew what we might have been sharing with country X's leaders. The people running country X might still be in power, and the answer to those sorts of questions has diplomatic repercussions today.

          Those are just two of the reasons why declassification takes decades.

          Anyhow, thanks, grey-haired spy nerds (and grey-haired balls-out crazy pilots!), for showing us some really cool stuff, like trying to catch a parachuting capsule in mid-air, which was something I hadn't heard of until Genesis [] and Stardust [] projects. Now we know where the science teams got the idea (and after the crash of Genesis, we also know which direction to install the accelerometer, and the importance of never skipping testing procedures...)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'm not a stalker, I'm a reconnaissance expert! Yeah.. that's the ticket...

    • If somebody's questioning you, then you're not an expert.

  • It would be a better display if the pictures that it took were there to see. Wonder what the real resolution of the cameras was/is.
    • I found this link showing photos from the lowest resolution camera on the bottom half of the page.
      They only had access to further reduced resolution images.

  • 1971 to present is 40 years, not 50.
  • by mbkennel ( 97636 ) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @02:19PM (#37429914)

    Is this one which was paid for and not launched due to some bureaucratic/political SNAFU?

    Is this a dummy test article?

    Was it retrieved by the shuttle in the 80's in a classified mission? (if it were launched in 71 it was designed prior to the shuttle era and there's no obvious reason it would be compatible---unless the shuttle was designed to be compatible with HEXAGON's hardware).

    • by rossdee ( 243626 )

      I'd guess a newer version came out and they launched that instead. (I have never heard of KH9 but I have heared of KH11 )

    • by modecx ( 130548 ) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @02:31PM (#37429964)

      It was probably the last one on the production lineup, and got the launch got scrubbed because something better came out, and instead of wasting a Titan launch on something obsolete, they changed plans. TFA didn't say this particular bird was launched in 1971, or at all, just that the first one flew in 1971.

      • Or it might not have met quality control specifications, or maybe it was a demo prototype, or maybe someone hooked up power wrong and blew out the circuitry (I mention it because a relative who works on satellites actually had a client do that). Wikipedia also says there was one failed launch attempt, depending on how catastrophic the failure was they might have recovered the satellite itself.
        • That was very catastrophic. This [] is what it looked like, so no, I don't think they got it back. The one they're putting on display is "probably" [] a model that was never supposed to fly in the first place, just a test article.
          • by tsotha ( 720379 )
            Which, of course, opens up the possibility what's on display isn't actually what went into space, and any analyst trying to divine useful information has to consider the possibility he's being played.
        • by modecx ( 130548 )

          Could be those things, but I'd seriously steer towards the idea that it didn't fly because it was probably way outdated at that point. The one which was destroyed along with its rocket was launched in 1986, and this one was probably scheduled to go up after that. In the middle of the digital revolution.

          If I were to guess, launching a new film-based spy satellite after 1980 probably didn't make a heck of a lot of sense in the first place, from the perspective of manning the systems, and mid-air retrieval of

    • by mattus ( 1071236 ) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @03:34PM (#37430294)
      Usually you build at least two. One will be space qualified and the other sits in a lab. Any changes you make to the flight software are tested on the lab version first to prevent expensive/embarrassing mistakes.
    • by jhobbs ( 659809 )
      FTFA: "In total there were 20 Hexagons put into orbit over the years. The one on display this weekend â" which was not among them â" has had portholes cut into the sides so that the internal camera machinery will be visible, according to Rick Oborn, an NRO spokesman."
    • I went to the exhibit with the same question. One of the docents said that it was an engineering platform built for ground-based testing. There was an immense amount of ground-based testing and re-testing; failure of one of these satellites in orbit would have been a national security emergency.
  • Am I wrong in presuming the satellite on display is either a spare or a recreation? Unless the NRO has some reason to safely capture and return satellites instead of allowing them to burn up in the atmosphere. (Were it a spare it's interesting to ponder how many backup clandestine satellites may be lying around.)
    • From the quasi-dupe [] from the other day, it's probably a flight qualification model.
    • Considder this:
      If it runs on film, and it drops the film back down from orbit, and with that technology; how the hell could they get new film back in?

      Errr... They couldn't, so that means either sending a shitload of these things into space on a regular basis, or have them land back in america. But if they could do that then why would they have the tape been dropped back onto earth? And no; it can't be a time thing, because they could have anticipated and adjusted the tape length and the orbit accordingly.


  • If you want more info:
  • Specs? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Saturday September 17, 2011 @03:52PM (#37430394) Homepage Journal

    It's declassified. What's interesting is not so much an arbitrarily short public exhibition, but a public release of its specs. I'd like to know what the NRO was using under Nixon to spy on the Soviets and Chinese, during the height of the Vietnam War. Where are the specs?

    • Recalling that Nixon was elected President in 1968, took office in 1969, was re-elected in 1972, and resigned in '74 or so, noting that these birds first flew in '71, I'd say you're probably looking at it.

      And then there was the SR-71 "Blackbird". According to the Wikipedia article, "The SR-71 served with the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1998." It flew over both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.

  • This is actually quite surreal for me as an adult. This is the equivalent of WW2 technology that I saw as a teenager in the 80's.
    • Isn't it amazing to compare how old stuff is to our kids to how old stuff was to us? "Why don't you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?"
  • [] The guts of the reentry capsules is neat. I really wish I could be there but sadly I'm on the opposite coast.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Many years ago I counted on the "Platform" KH-9 to provide the "information" that I needed to fulfill the US and NATO operations requirements for support of global planning and country specific tactical operations. And all this is unknown to virtually every USA citizen, and if I go public, fully, then I will be silently rendered to Demascus, tortured and killed, in the name of National Security for the sake of the President of the United States of America. Yes, on the day of my employment to the Department

!07/11 PDP a ni deppart m'I !pleH