A spy satellite (officially referred to as a reconnaissance satellite or recon sat) is an Earth observation satellite or communications satellite deployed for military or intelligence applications. Until the 1970s and even the 1980s, many reconnaissance satellites that took photographs would eject canisters of photographic film, which would descend to earth and be retrieved in mid-air as they floated down on parachutes.
The term "reconnaissance satellite" is preferred, as "spy satellite" often has negative connotations.
In the United States, the most information is available on programs that existed up to 1972. Some information about programs prior to that time is still classified, and a small trickle of information is available on subsequent missions. A few up-to-date reconnaissance satellite images have been declassified on occasion, or leaked, as in the case of KH-11 photographs which were sent to Jane's Defense Weekly in 1985.
ARS / SENTRY / SAMOS
On 16 March 1955 the Air Force issued General Operational Requirement No. 80, officially establishing a high-level priority for developing an advanced reconnaissance satellite. First designated Advanced Reconnaissance System (ARS), then SENTRY and finally SAMOS the program focused on a system in which a camera equipped satellite would electronically 'scan' images for transmission to ground stations.
Concerns about the length of time required to realize the project's goal led president Eisenhower to approve a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) satellite reconnaissance system code-named CORONA on 7 February 1958. By the early 1960s all of the various versions of SAMOS had been cancelled leaving CORONA to become the backbone of American satellite reconnaissance for the next decade.
A major reason for the success of CORONA was its relative simplicity. CORONA was designed to take photos then jettison them in a film canister which came back to earth. A specially equipped aircraft would literally snag it out of the air as it descended by parachute.
Mission launches began in 1959 but with sickening regularity they failed mainly due to problems with the launch vehicle including several spectacular explosions. The first success came on the 13th mission when a non-camera carrying CORONA achieved orbit and returned its film canister which was fished out of the ocean.
The first completely successful mission came on 18 August 1960 when a CORONA reached orbit and released a film canister the following day which was snatched in mid-air. The camera system retroactively designated KH-1 (KH for KEYHOLE) gave image resolutions on the order of 40ft but with this single mission CORONA provided greater photographic coverage of the Soviet Union then all of the U-2 spy missions put together.
The next successful Corona mission on 7 December 1960 carried a more advanced camera system, the KH-2. Improvements continued with the KH-3, KH-4, KH-4A, and finally the KH-4B eventually providing image resolutions of 5-6ft. In addition to CORONA there were two smaller programs ARGON (for mapping) and LANYARD (motivated by a specific target in the Soviet Union) which operated during the years 1962-1964 and 1963 respectively.
Aug. 30, 1961: Corona upgrades to the-KH-3 camera, doubling the level of detail. Feb. 27, 1962: The last launch in the Discoverer series, Discoverer XXXVIII, is a successful debut mission for the new KH 4 camera. The Air Force now imposes a total security blanket on Corona, future launches will be secret, with no effort to maintain a cover story of scientific research.
Corona reaches its prime. From May 1966 through February 1971, 32 launches in a row are either partially or completely successful. May 25, 1972: The final Corona mission is launched, with the final capsule recovered on May 31. During the life of the program, Corona mapped 750 million sguare miles of the Earth's surface, mostly in the Soviet Union and China; the resolution of its cameras improved from initially distinguishing objects on the ground no smaller than 20ft to picking out objects just fiveft across.
Of the 145 total Corona missions, 102 were successful. Altogether, over 860,000 images of the Soviet Union and other parts of the world were delivered. Collection includes 2.1 millionft of film in 39,000 cans.
Argon KH-5 and Lanyard KH-6 ARGON (for mapping); operations: 1962-1964. Of the 11 Argon missions, 6 were successful.
Lanyard (motivated by a specific target in the USSR to meet an emergency requirement for close-up imaging of a suspected Soviet ICBM site near Tallinn.); operations: 1963. Of the 3 Lanyard missions, 1 was successful.
Gambit KH-7, KH-8
Complementing CORONA was a close look or 'spotting' satellite called GAMBIT. Designed to provide high resolution images of small areas rather than broad coverage GAMBIT operated from 1963 into part of 1984. The first camera system for GAMBIT, KH-7 gave a resolution of 18 inches while the second and last camera system, KH-8 had a resolution three times better.
Hexagon KH-9 'Big Bird'
Designed to succeed CORONA this new generation spy satellite provided exceptionally detailed images with a resolution of 1-2ft of a much larger area than CORONA. Between 1971 and 1984 eighteen HEXAGON satellites were launched. The camera system of HEXAGON was the KH-9.
June 15, 1971: A new-generation spy satellite called "Hexagon" is launched from Vandenberg. It carries a KH-9 camera, capable of exposing more film and covering a wider area on the ground.
KH-10 Dorian MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory)
An ambitious Air Force project to have a manned reconnaissance platform in outer-space. The MOL was a cylinder with roughly 34 cubic yards of work space. A broad array of tasks were assigned to the MOL but ELINT and reconnaissance duties were certainly intended to be paramount. The project was finally axed in 1969 having consumed over a billion dollars in development.
KH-11 (Kennan / Crystal)
In late 1976 a new level of space based surveillance was achieved with the launch of the first KH-11.
KH-12 (KH-11B / Improved Crystal) Similar to the KH-11 but with greatly improved electronics which provide sharper images and a resolution approaching ten centimeters (6 inches) - comparable in quality to the best of the film return satellites. A periscope-like rotating mirror reflects images onto the primary mirror, enabling the KH-12 to take pictures at very high angles of obliquity, imaging objects hundreds of miles away from its flight path. The KH-12 also carries a lot more fuel than the KH-11 (up to 7 tons) giving a longer service life and greater maneuverability.
KH-12 /1 was launched on 28 November 1992 by a Titan-4 from Vandenberg.
KH-12 /2 was launched on 05 December 1995 by a Titan-4 from Vandenberg.
KH-12 /3 was launched on 20 December 1996 by a Titan-4 from Vandenberg.
Indigo / Lacrosse / Vega (Radar Imaging)
A space-based imaging radar can see through clouds, and utilization of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) techniques can potentially provide images with a resolution that approaches that of photographic reconnaissance satellites. An project to develop such a satellite was initiated in late 1986 by the CIA. This effort led to the successful test of the Indigo prototype imaging radar satellite in January 1982. Although the decision to proceed with an operational system was controversial, development of the Lacrosse system was approved in 1983.
While Lacrosse is still highly classified and details scarce an imaging resolution of 1m (3.3 ft) is considered feasible for the system.
Lacrosse 1 (1988-106B 19671) was launched on 2 December 1988 by the Space Shuttle. The spacecraft entered an orbit with an inclination of 57 degrees, with an perigee of 680 km and an apogee of 690 km, and has not maneuvered significantly since launch.
Lacrosse 2 (199- A) was launched from Vandenberg AFB CA on a Titan-4 on 08 March 1991
Lacrosse 3 (199- A) was launched from Vandenberg AFB CA on a Titan-4 in the Fall of 1997, replacing Lacrosse 1.
17 August 2000 USA 152 Launch Site: Vandenberg . Launch Vehicle: Titan 4B. Perigee: 689 km. Apogee: 695 km. Inclination: 68.0 deg.
Russian Spy Satellites
Resurs-F Soviet third-generation Reconnaissance Satellite, an extensive refinement of the earlier ZENIT satellites. The first satellite in this series, the Resurs-Fl, was launched on May 25, 1989. Weighing almost 14,000lb, it deployed two "subsatellites." The main satellite orbited 158 to 170 miles above the earth. It reentered, apparently to return film and other data, on June 17, 1989.