Author Topic: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites  (Read 114359 times)

Offline Blackstar

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http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1279/1

Ike’s gambit: The development and operations of the KH-7 and KH-8 spy satellites
by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, January 5, 2009

[Editor’s Note: this is the first of a two-part article.]

In 1995 the Central Intelligence Agency declassified the existence of the CORONA series of reconnaissance satellites, which had operated from 1960 until 1972. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had approved the satellite’s development in early 1958, was hailed by agency and military officials as a visionary who had approved a revolutionary intelligence collection system. But in 1960, after Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union and high-resolution photography of Soviet targets ceased, Eisenhower approved a second reconnaissance satellite named GAMBIT that was equally revolutionary to the CORONA. GAMBIT produced very-high-resolution photographs of Soviet military installations until the last launch, in 1985. (Spy satellite names were almost always printed in all-caps in official documents.)

Offline Art LeBrun

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #1 on: 01/05/2009 07:44 pm »
Really good insights into the early recon sats. Little by little Dwayne is
revealing new facts about the technology, people and flights of this  unique time in our history.                                                             Looking forward to the complete article in Spaceflight (and the complete story by 2025!).
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Offline kevin-rf

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #2 on: 01/05/2009 09:17 pm »

Nice article, amazing how such little things like changing the top of the launch tower can have a major impact. Good job being able to pull an article out of such little information.

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Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #3 on: 01/07/2009 11:23 am »
Here's the opening for part 2, which will run on Monday:


Ike’s Gambit: The KH-8 Reconnaissance Satellite

An Air Force officer walks into a bar…

No, this is not the beginning of a joke.

An Air Force officer walks into a bar in the early 1970s.  The bar was in the officer’s club on an airbase in England, probably RAF Mildenhall.  He was an American officer, apparently in England to attend the annual Farnborough air show, one of the largest air shows in the world.  While tipping back a few beers, the officer hears a couple of other officers—it is unknown if they were American or British—discussing an object that a farmer had found on land near where one of the officers lived off-base.  The local authorities had been called in to look at the object and had no idea what it was.  But the person telling the story noted that whatever it was, “it had a lot of glass in it.”

The details of the story are sketchy, unconfirmed, and it is unclear if the visiting officer instantly knew what they were talking about.  But what the farmer had found in his field were apparently pieces of a KH-8 GAMBIT high-resolution spy satellite that had fallen to Earth only a short time before.  According to a cryptic entry in a declassified reconnaissance satellite history, intelligence officials knew that one of their spysats had unexpectedly fallen to Earth, but they did not suspect that it had actually come down on land, or that it had been found by a civilian.  It was not the first time that a top secret spy satellite had been discovered by a farmer (see: “Spysat Down!” The Space Review, February 18, 2008), but fortunately the officer’s intervention prevented the story from leaking.

There was good reason for the intelligence community to want the find to remain as secret as possible.  The KH-8 was the highest resolution reconnaissance satellite ever built.  Even today, it apparently holds the record for the best reconnaissance photographs returned from orbit by any spacecraft, a combination of both a powerful camera and the ability to dramatically lower its orbit, to “swoop” in over a target at altitudes of apparently only 70 nautical miles (130 kilometers).  The KH-8 could apparently see objects on the ground as small as a baseball and had the ability to photograph people with enough resolution to see their arms and legs.  Later satellites had bigger mirrors, but flew at higher altitudes and could not return pictures as good.

The fallen spysat story is only one of several fascinating anecdotes about the KH-8.  There was the time that some Air Force officers used one to take a self-portrait.  And the time that the National Reconnaissance Office used one to photograph the crippled Skylab space station.  For a top secret satellite, it has a fascinating history.

Offline Art LeBrun

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #4 on: 01/07/2009 02:38 pm »
Thanks again for the continuing stories of KH-7/KH-8..........
1958 launch vehicle highlights: Vanguard TV-4 and Atlas 12B

Offline Ronsmytheiii

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #5 on: 01/08/2009 02:53 am »
Hmm, maybe a digital KH-8 would be a good idea, especially with the lower cost launchers like Minotaur or Delta II available as well as their future equivalents.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #6 on: 01/08/2009 03:25 am »
Hmm, maybe a digital KH-8 would be a good idea, especially with the lower cost launchers like Minotaur or Delta II available as well as their future equivalents.

It's called GeoEye...

Offline eeergo

Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #7 on: 01/08/2009 12:34 pm »
Recently, I read the Orlets-2 Yenisey sats had alledgedly resolutions "capable of spotting matchsticks". Would this make them more powerful than the KH, or is it a legend?
-DaviD-

Offline Archibald

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #8 on: 01/09/2009 07:34 am »
---And the time that the National Reconnaissance Office used one to photograph the crippled Skylab space station.---

Are the pics available somewhere ?

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Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #9 on: 01/09/2009 05:46 pm »
Recently, I read the Orlets-2 Yenisey sats had alledgedly resolutions "capable of spotting matchsticks". Would this make them more powerful than the KH, or is it a legend?

Legend.  Peter Gorin wrote a good history of the Yenisey.  I think it appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

There is no reason to believe that Russian spysats have ever been as good as American ones for several reasons:

-Soviet/Russian spysat technology was always 5-10 years behind American technology (just going by launch dates)

-the Soviets/Russians never built satellites with apertures as big as the American ones

-the US had some distinct advantages with its economy and technology.  For instance, American film was the best in the world and it is hard to believe that the Soviet Union ever replicated the chemistry.

That said, there were certain technologies that the USSR developed, like the RORSATs, that the United States did not.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #10 on: 01/09/2009 05:47 pm »
---And the time that the National Reconnaissance Office used one to photograph the crippled Skylab space station.---

Are the pics available somewhere ?



No.  No KH-8 images have ever been released.  Even if they are, it is likely that this film will not be released because it is a capability that the NRO does not want to publicize.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #11 on: 01/10/2009 08:11 pm »
Some illustrations I'm using on Monday.

Offline kevin-rf

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #12 on: 01/12/2009 03:31 pm »
Some illustrations I'm using on Monday.

Not to be greedy, but at what time does the site update?

11:30 am EST and still on last week ;)
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Offline kevin-rf

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #13 on: 01/12/2009 06:04 pm »
Nice long article, worth the read...

Quick question, do you think the solar panel layout would be similar to the Seasat's?
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Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #14 on: 01/12/2009 09:14 pm »
Here's part 2:

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1283/1

Ike’s gambit: The KH-8 reconnaissance satellite
by Dwayne A. Day
Monday, January 12, 2009

[Editor’s Note: this is the second of a two-part article. Part one appeared last week.]

An Air Force officer walks into a bar…

No, this is not the beginning of a joke.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #15 on: 01/12/2009 09:32 pm »
Nice long article, worth the read...

Thank you.  As I noted earlier, this is essentially going to be a very long Spaceflight article with footnotes.  It will probably be #3 or #4 in a series. 

The series will probably be:

1-the origins of the Samos recoverable satellites and the proposals for a "covert satellite" using an ICBM
2-the Samos E-6 satellite and the SPARTAN (half E-6) program
3-the KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT

I might split 3 into two parts to become 3 and 4.  In addition, I have new information on the KH-6, developed from the Samos E-5, and that could possibly fit in between parts 2 and 3.  Dunno.  Gotta get off my butt and submit part 1.

Quick question, do you think the solar panel layout would be similar to the Seasat's?

I don't know.  Corona mission 1115, which flew in Sept 1971, was a single panel that extended out from the aft rack of the Agena (I've got an illustration of it from a declassified history that I could scan and post in a few days).  It looks a lot like the arrays on the Apollo Telescope Mount on Skylab.

Presumably you could fit two of these.  This may have been the Seasat array a few years later.  I don't think that power requirements for KH-8 were all that high, especially compared to Seasat with a radar.  So maybe KH-8 only carried one array, or two short ones.

However, we don't have good documentation on the solar panels carried by _any_ Agena.  I don't know when they were first carried at all, although they were projected for early Samos and Midas.  So we don't know anything about what kinds of solar panels were developed for Agena and when.

Here's another question--how do you bring a KH-8 down for a low pass with that array?  Do you pull it in and then deploy it?  Do you fly only a single array?

Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #16 on: 01/12/2009 09:34 pm »
Not to be greedy, but at what time does the site update?

11:30 am EST and still on last week ;)

Usually by 8 am EST Monday mornings.  It was late today for some reason.  That said, the editor does this for free and has three other websites, plus a job.  It's amazing that he's able to produce anything at all.

Offline yinzer

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #17 on: 01/12/2009 10:02 pm »
Nice long article, worth the read...

Thank you.  As I noted earlier, this is essentially going to be a very long Spaceflight article with footnotes.  It will probably be #3 or #4 in a series. 

The series will probably be:

1-the origins of the Samos recoverable satellites and the proposals for a "covert satellite" using an ICBM
2-the Samos E-6 satellite and the SPARTAN (half E-6) program
3-the KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT

I might split 3 into two parts to become 3 and 4.  In addition, I have new information on the KH-6, developed from the Samos E-5, and that could possibly fit in between parts 2 and 3.  Dunno.  Gotta get off my butt and submit part 1.

Quick question, do you think the solar panel layout would be similar to the Seasat's?

I don't know.  Corona mission 1115, which flew in Sept 1971, was a single panel that extended out from the aft rack of the Agena (I've got an illustration of it from a declassified history that I could scan and post in a few days).  It looks a lot like the arrays on the Apollo Telescope Mount on Skylab.

Presumably you could fit two of these.  This may have been the Seasat array a few years later.  I don't think that power requirements for KH-8 were all that high, especially compared to Seasat with a radar.  So maybe KH-8 only carried one array, or two short ones.

However, we don't have good documentation on the solar panels carried by _any_ Agena.  I don't know when they were first carried at all, although they were projected for early Samos and Midas.  So we don't know anything about what kinds of solar panels were developed for Agena and when.

Here's another question--how do you bring a KH-8 down for a low pass with that array?  Do you pull it in and then deploy it?  Do you fly only a single array?

I'm not sure exactly how low the KH-8s went, but if the solar array was edge-on to the direction of flight, the drag could be manageable.
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Offline Blackstar

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #18 on: 01/12/2009 11:10 pm »
I'm not sure exactly how low the KH-8s went, but if the solar array was edge-on to the direction of flight, the drag could be manageable.

I don't have the data in front of me, but the longest mission was at least 128 days.

Offline yinzer

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Re: The KH-7 and KH-8 GAMBIT reconnaissance satellites
« Reply #19 on: 01/13/2009 01:31 am »
I'm not sure exactly how low the KH-8s went, but if the solar array was edge-on to the direction of flight, the drag could be manageable.

I don't have the data in front of me, but the longest mission was at least 128 days.

Are Charles Vick's writings at globalsecurity considered trustworthy?  He mentions later KH-8s having a bunch of small solid rocket motors for orbital maintenance.

I'll have to wait until I get home and can dig out my copy of SMAD to say for sure, but my gut feeling is that the altitudes in question aren't low enough to cause structural problems for a moderately robust solar array of the type you see in Apollo Telescope Mount or SeaSat pictures.  The drag from the 60-inch diameter satellite body should be on the order of a couple of pounds, and even a pretty big edge-on solar array will present less area than that.

Do you know if the KH-8s in question remained in these low orbits for their entire lifetime?  That could get expensive in terms of propellant use, but maneuvering to lower perigee, taking some pictures, then raising the orbit again seems like it'd work.

Also, do you know what "time" was used for the orbits?  Early-morning, late-afternoon, etc?  I think that'd be the biggest influence on how much efficiency you'd lose by not being able to point your array directly at the sun.  Of course, the roll joint for cross-track pointing of the camera doubles as a single-axis gimbal for the solar array...
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