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A Tragedy In Low Earth Orbit
by James Dunnigan
February 10, 2011

The secret military satellite recently launched from California on a Delta IV rocket was revealed to be a KH-11 photo reconnaissance satellite, replacing one that was about to wear out. Actually, two are wearing out, and another KH-11 is set to go up soon. But it wasn't supposed to happen this way, as the KH-11 design first entered service in 1977 and was supposed to be replaced by the KH-12 a decade later. Yet the KH-11, somewhat updated, is still in service. What went wrong?

It all began when the first of these digital satellites, the KH (Keyhole) 9 was launched in 1971. These birds were large, nearly 15 tons, about four times the size of the earlier models that sent film back in canisters (for high resolution pictures), to be developed. But for lower resolution photos, a digital camera was used and the results were broadcast to earth. The KH-9s were nicknamed Big Bird. Then, in 1977, the fifth generation dawned with the launch of the KH-11. This was a major breakthrough, as canisters were no longer needed and resolution was such that objects 70mm (a few inches) in size could be identified from 200 kilometers up via digital photos. The KH-11 telescopic cameras operated like a high resolution TV camera. Images were captured continuously and transmitted to earth stations. Computers were used to finish the process and produce photos identical to those taken by a conventional film camera. You could even have motion pictures, as well as indications of heat and the nature of the various items. KH-11 could often tell what kind of metal an object on the ground was made of. This did not come cheap, these birds cost over $400 million each and lasted three or four years, depending on fuel usage. Moreover, you needed two of them up at the same time in order to guarantee coverage and save the birds from having to change orbit too frequently.

The next generation, the KH-12, was supposed to have been launched in 1987. But because of problems with the space shuttle (one had exploded during launch), only a belated KH-11 was launched in October, 1987. The KH-12 was delayed, even though it had several advantages over the KH-11. Along with improvements in ground data processing equipment, the KH-12 could send back data in real time. You could watch events on a large, high resolution screen as they were happening. This would also allow military headquarters and other users to get their satellite information directly, without going through a CIA or NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) processing center. Data from the more esoteric sensors would still have to be studied by the specialists elsewhere. The KH-12 was expected to make users even more enthusiastic about satellite reconnaissance. It did, in the form of a much upgraded KH-11, but the flood of photographic and electronic data was growing far larger than the force of analysts needed to make something of it. In addition to the KH series birds, there were radar and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) satellites constantly broadcasting data. Then there are the Defense Support Program satellites, that use heat sensors to locate the hot plumes of missile launches.

There still isn't a KH-12, and that's partly because commercial photo satellites have become cheaper and more convenient for military use. Many KH-12 features were simply added to subsequent KH-11s. This was cheaper than building the new KH-12 design, and involved less paperwork. Thus,  those in charge of American space operations are asking that less money be spent on developing new satellites, and more spent on building up a reserve of GPS and communications satellites that can quickly be launched to replace wartime losses. The Department of Defense has already been buying more commercial satellites, rather than much more expensive, usually late, and sometimes cancelled, custom designed military birds. Contributing to this change were bumbling bureaucrats who mismanaged development projects, and journalists who headlined the failures.

Two years ago, the Department of Defense agreed to spend $10 billion to build two military grade photo-satellites, similar to the ones already in orbit, plus two commercial grade photo satellites. This uncharacteristically prudent behavior was forced on them by Congress. The politicians were angry over the failure of the Department of Defense to design and build a new generation of military photo satellites. For example, five years ago the U.S. cancelled the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) system. This disaster cost the government more than $10 billion, when a poorly conceived and run effort to create a more powerful new generation of intelligence satellites failed. Instead of FIA, the two existing military photo satellites will simply be replaced with similar designs. In addition, the Pentagon will buy two commercial photo satellites, for about $850 million each, to replace what the Department of Defense is currently spending on photos from commercial photo satellite companies. The two commercial birds, which will be owned by the Department of Defense, will be launched next year.

The FIA (Future Imagery Architecture) system was to be a new generation of smaller and more numerous spy satellites that would provide more coverage of targets down below, and, because of the larger number of satellites, a more difficult target for anyone seeking to destroy the U.S. spy satellite capability. The KH series birds were to retire in 2005, replaced by FIA satellites. The project, begun in 1998, was poorly designed and managed. In retrospect, it was doomed from the start because of a lack of technical talent on the government side, and the selection of the low bidder (Boeing) that lacked the experience and capabilities to carry out a job like this. The replacement for FIA is in the works, and scheduled to launch in six years, allowing KH birds to finally retire by the end of the decade. Maybe.

It has long been suggested that the government just rely on commercial photo satellites for their low resolution (able to detect vehicles and buildings) photo satellite needs. But the military and intelligence agencies often need more photo satellite time than the commercial companies can provide. The government also wants to ensure secrets are kept by having complete control over a pair of commercial grade satellites.

The two new commercial birds would take over the task of tracking troop movements, bases and military operations in general. The two new high resolution, military grade, spy satellites are improved versions of existing ones. These are used to get detailed (able to detect something smaller than an inch) photos of something the commercial grade images (able to detect something 30-45 cm/12-18 inches in size) found interesting.

The troops and military planners are also big users of Google Earth, which annoys the people running the military satellite program. But for many military satellite needs, Google Earth does the job. The two military, commercial grade, photo satellites will eliminate the potential for information leaks (about what the military is buying images of) and provide much more capacity to do low resolution jobs.

The people who run the military satellite system are increasingly concerned with wartime needs, and that is what brought out the request for spare GPS and communications satellites. These are relatively cheap, compared to the spy satellites, and most needed if a future war spreads to the orbital zone, and puts some American birds out of action. There is also growing concern about the debris in orbit, and the increasing risk of satellites being damaged or destroyed by these small fragments of older satellites and the rockets that put them there.

Meanwhile, the KH-12 becomes a faint memory of what might-have-been.


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