[ index | 1970 ]

Code 467 satellite

Supplementing Rhyolite in the heavens, in addition to the SIGINT beach balls, are two low-flying satellite systems that serve a combined photo and SIGINT function and could be modified to play a larger role in telemetry coverage.

The first is the Code 467 satellite, better known as Big Bird. Built by Lockheed and first launched on June 15, 1971, the satellite is a massive twelve-ton, fifty-five-foot-long spy station built around an extraordinary, superhigh resolution camera capable of distinguishing objects eight inches across from a height of ninety miles. Infrared cameras on board are capable of detecting hidden, underground missile silos because the silos' temperature is warmer than that of the surrounding earth. Other sensors include multispectral photography, which aids in spotting camouflage, and an array of SIGINT listening devices.

Launched at a rate of about two per year, the Big Birds were the first satellites capable of both search-and-find surveillance and close-look detection. The major handicap of the Code 467 is its short life span, which started out at about 52 days but by 1978 was extended to 179 days. (pp.259-260)

KH-11 satellite

The second of the low-altitude aurveillance platforms (LASPs) is the Code 1010, or KH-11 satellite, code-named Keyhole. Even more sophisticated than Big Bird, Keyhole incorporates a realtime capability, permitting it to send back to earth high-quality, telephoto television signals as well as SIGINT information.

Confirmation of the satellite's SIGINT capability came during a trial several years ago in which it was revealed that Section 2 of the sixty-four-page KH-11 systems technical manual was classified TOP SECRET UMBRA, the overall code for high-level SIGINT information. Nearby were the words "Spool Label Color-Coded for DB" and the word "canisters". This may mean that, like Big Bird, Keyhole can store exposed film and tape in canisters that are periodically ejected into the earth's atmosphere, descend by parachute to a point in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii, and are recovered in midair or float on or just under the surface of the ocean, givin off radio and sonar signals for eventual recovery by frogmen. The SIGINT spools, as opposed to the film spools, can then be sent for data processing (DP).

Keyhole was first launched on December 19, 1976. Later launches were on June 14, 1978, and February 7, 1980. It could achieve a 300-mile-high orbit, almost twice as high as Big Bird's highest orbit, and thus had a life expectancy of about two years, a cosiderable improvement over the previous generation.

-- James Bamford: THE PUZZLE PALACE, 1982.

In late 1976, a new capability was added when the satellite carrying the KH-11 optical system was placed into orbit. Unlike its predecessors, the KH-11, also known by the program code names KENNAN and CRYSTAL, did not return film canisters to be recovered and interpreted. Rather, the light captured by its optical system was transformed into electronic signals and relayed (through a relay satellite in a higher orbit) back to a ground station, where the signals were recorded on tape and converted into an image. As a result, the U.S. could obtain satellite images of a site or activity virtually simultaneously with a satellite passing overhead.

The United States is presently [1999] operating at least two satellite imaging systems. One is an advanced version of the KH-11, three of which have been launched, the first in 1992. (...) They contain an infrared imagery capability, including a thermal infrared imagery capability, thus permitting imagery during darkness. In addition, the satellites carry the Improved CRYSTAL Metric System (ICMS), which places the necessary markings on returned imagery to permit its full exploitation for mapping purposes.

A second component of the U.S. space imaging fleet, are satellites developed and deployed under a program first known as INDIGO, then as LACROSSE, and most recently as VEGA. Rather than employing an electro-optical system they carry an imaging radar.  The satellites closed a major gap in U.S. capabilities by allowing the U.S. intelligence community to obtain imagery even when targets are covered by clouds.

-- Jeffrey T. Richelson: U.S. Satellite Imagery, 1960-1999
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 13, April 14, 1999
src: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB13/index.html

The Clinton administration, on occasion, released imagery obtained by advanced KH-11 satellites, although in degraded form - so as not to reveal the full capabilities of the satellites, particularly their resolution. The selective releases were associated with U.S. military operations - including strikes against terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan (in response to the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania), strikes against Yugoslavian targets in support of U.S. operations in the Balkans, and the air strikes against Iraqi targets that constituted Operation Desert Fox.

-- Jeffrey T. Richelson: Eyes on Saddam - U.S. Overhead Imagery of Iraq
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 88, April 30, 2003.
src: http://www.hfni.gsehd.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB88/

Cf. also:
(launched 1960) -- first photo reconnaissance satellite
CANYON (launched 1968) -- first US Comint satellite
RHYOLITE (launched 1972)

[ index | 1969 ]