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The Military Space United States Technology

NRO To Declassify Cold-War Spy-Sat Tech 77

Muad'Dave writes "The National Reconnaissance Office is set to reveal details of two of the cold war's most capable spy satellite programs on September 17th — the GAMBIT and HEXAGON projects, aka the keyhole KH-7, -8, and -9 satellites. These bus-sized sats provided critical imagery during the height of the cold war, and were likely the inspiration for the movie Ice Station Zebra. The article links midway down the first page provide a fascinating look into the world of real spy-vs-spy, cloak-and-dagger intelligence gathering."
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NRO To Declassify Cold-War Spy-Sat Tech

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  • According to several sources, the NRO plans to display several declassified objects on the grounds of the Smithsonianâ(TM)s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Museum for a short period of time, possibly only on September 17. One of these objects is the massive camera system from the KH-9 HEXAGON. Another is the camera system from the KH-7 GAMBIT.

    Some /.er has to know more.
    Make a few phone calls if you have to!

    If they're only on display for one day, I'll make a special trip to the museum.
    They already have an older keyhole satellite in their collection, with a part of it on display.
    The film retrieval system was "we're going to have a plane catch it in mid-air".

    • by Anonymous Coward

      After that they will be permanently displayed at the Air Force museum in Dayton, it's not like they'll be put back in the government warehouses.

    • According to a now-removed media advisory [] from 9/13:

      The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and the National Reconnaissance Office will be hosting a one-day-only viewing opportunity of the newly declassified HEXAGON (KH-9) satellite in the parking lot of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Saturday, Sept. 17. This is the first time the public will be able to view this impressive spacecraft, and it will be the only opportunity to see it in the Washington area for some time.

  • The movie Ice Station Zebra was nice, but at least reference the book it was based on. [] Especially sense it was just re-released.
  • "The plot has parallels to events reported in news stories from April 1959, concerning a missing experimental CORONA satellite capsule (Discoverer II) that inadvertently landed near Spitsbergen, situated in the Arctic Ocean on April 13, which was believed to have been recovered by Soviet agents."
    The book was published in 1963 the first KH-7 was launched in July of 1963 so the math doesn't add up for the Gambit to be the satellite in the book.

  • I opened the larger version from the picture from article (the size comparasion between the sats), and for my, the KH-11 are a copy from Hubble
  • I Wanna Be a Boss []

    Now if I find a product I like
    I'll buy up the whole company
    Shave my face, and grin and smile
    And then I'll sell it on tv
    And everyone will know me
    I'll be more famous than howard hughes
    I'll grow a long beard and watch
    Ice station zebra in the nude

  • Back in the 1970s I had the pleasure of working on several large-scale classified projects (one included a large ship). Everything we did had to be done on a schedule that would take into account whether a Soviet spy satellite was passing over or not. I can remember being frustrated that this caused a lot of extra work and time but at least we knew when NOT to do something.

    I suspect that it's a lot more difficult now.

    • by guruevi ( 827432 )

      These days those arrangements are thwarted by Facebook and Twitter.

    • As of the 90's and 00's when I was in the biz. Yes, much more complicated.

      Anyway, was a pleasure here too... good people, good tech, good missions, "boring" job (i.e. that you can't talk about it).

  • by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @01:21PM (#37411538) Journal
    I recall in college being given a problem set on optics, which considered whether it was possible for the US Government to actually read license plates from space. This question asked us to consider the Hubble Space Telescope and its diffraction limit (setting aside atmospheric disturbance), and compare that to the angular size of the letters on a license plate when viewed from low Earth orbit. Why consider the question using the Hubble, and not some hypothetical spy satellite? Well, the size of the Hubble's mirror was well known, whereas the size and configuration of spy satellites was still classified. "But," said the professor with a wink, "the sizing of Hubble was based in part on what was already known to be possible." The graphic accompanying the article shows a KH-9 that looks a whole lot like a Hubble.
    • by wiredog ( 43288 )

      And the answer is, well, no. Unless the license plate is laying flat on the ground, and the Hubble is in a 90 mile orbit. If the plate is on a car it's too far for a look from the side.

      And, as you said, this leaves out atmospherics.

    • Re:Proven Technology (Score:4, Interesting)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Thursday September 15, 2011 @03:14PM (#37412880) Homepage

      "But," said the professor with a wink, "the sizing of Hubble was based in part on what was already known to be possible."

      Hubble's size, weight, and CG were based on what was possible within the Shuttle's cargo bay. The size, weight, and CG capabilities of the Shuttle's cargo bay were based on current and reasonable future spy birds.
      That being said, the optical path (and weight/CG) are probably going to differ somewhat between Hubble and a notional spy bird. Hubble looks straight out axially, while spy birds are generally believed to have a mirror that allows an axial camera to look out the side of bird. There's also some debate over whether or not the supposed mirror is fixed or movable. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Puts the near-sighted hubble mirror in a new perspective.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @03:16PM (#37412904) Homepage

    Digital Globe [] and GeoEye [] now operate commercial imagery satellites. That's where Microsoft and Google get their imagery for areas where they don't have close aerial coverage. DoD buys a lot of their info. Best commercial resolution is 45cm. Which, realistically, is enough to find most threats that can be seen from above.

    Digital Globe has an analysis of Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. [].

  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @03:23PM (#37412964) Journal []

    I highly recommend it. The Soviets actually got a manned space satellite to work. Which is probably where they learned so much about extended space missions.

    • The Soviets actually got a manned space satellite to work.

      That's known as "making lemonade out of lemons". The Soviets pursued that path because their automatic systems were not up to the task. The US did not, not only because our systems were up to the task, but because the vibrations caused by men on/adjacent to the camera reduced it's resolution

      Which is probably where they learned so much about extended space missions.

      Not really. The Almaz stations were only visited three times - for a total s

      • by plopez ( 54068 )

        I know of Salyut amd MIR. But I think the spy satelitte came first.
        81 days was pretty long in those days in a space station, when the US was only in space for a few days to/from the moon in a capsule. It served as "proof of concept" and probably worked out a few bugs in the process.

        • 81 days was pretty long in those days in a space station, when the US was only in space for a few days to/from the moon in a capsule.

          Nope. Skylab accumulated 171 days by 1973, while it took until 1977 for Almaz/Salyut to accumulate 81 days. In fact, Skylab 3 (1973) accumulated 84 days all by itself.

          On top of that, the Soviets wouldn't bust the Skylab total time accumulated record until 1977, or the Skylab single mission record until 1977/78. And it took them 11 manned flights or flight attempts (

  • That is an interesting question. I don't know what can be made out by the military spy sattelites but my experiencr with Google maps is this. I can clearly make out who has and has not a backyard fence in my subdivision. Also I was a backpacker and knew exactly where some foot paths were. I could detect some of them in a Google maps satellite picture. By the way, these paths were not very heavily traveled (they were in the Wind River Range) and the paths were sometimes hard to follow at ground level.

  • "since the mid-1990s, when an executive order signed by President Clinton—apparently over some opposition from NRO leadership—declassified the CORONA reconnaissance satellite program"

    No the biggest thing they released in the 90's was during 1992: That the NRO existed.

  • and I bet they don't need film anymore

Where it is a duty to worship the sun it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. -- Christopher Morley