Space: Why Russia Still Uses Film In Spy Satellites

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May 23, 2012: On May 17th, Russia launched its eighth Kobalt M reconnaissance satellite. The first one was launched eight years ago. The second Kobalt M went up in May 2006, in a very dramatic fashion. That launch was just in time, as their only operational spy satellite (a naval reconnaissance bird) had died the previous month. By the end of 2006, Russia managed to launch an electronic recon satellite and another naval recon satellite. At the time Russia had dozens of military satellites in orbit, but they were all for communications or everything but photo and electronic reconnaissance. Russia is still using a lot of birds designed with Soviet (Cold War era) technology. This is changing, as a new generation of satellites, built more to Western standards, is going up. But a lot of the older tech will remain in use for the foreseeable future.

Kobalt M satellites weigh 6.7 tons and contain three re-entry vehicles for returning film. Yes, a quarter century after the United States stopped using this method Russia continues to use film, instead of digital photography, for some of its recon birds. In the United States the last generation of film-using spy satellites, the Keyhole 9 (or KH 9), was used in 1984. The KH 1 through 9 series satellites sent film back in canisters (for high resolution pictures), to be developed.

The Keyhole 9, the first of which went up in 1971, was not only the last of the American film satellite designs but the largest and most capable. Its basic layout was used by the subsequent digital camera birds. The KH 9 could cover large areas at high (for the time) resolution of .6 meters (24 inches). This was more than adequate to spot and count tanks, aircraft, and even small warships. The 19th, and last, KH 9 went up in 1984. The KH-9 was a 13 ton satellite with multiple cameras and 4 or 5 reentry vehicles for returning the film for developing and analysis. The KH-9s were nicknamed Big Bird. The first film camera satellite, KH 1, went up in 1959. Thus for 25 years the film-using satellites supplied coverage of hostile nations.

Russia launched its first digital photo recon satellite in 1997. This Arkon model was not very successful. A more reliable Persona satellite (with higher resolution) went up four years ago. This was 22 years after the first American KH-11 went into orbit. The U.S. still uses KH-11s (much upgraded from the original), which have much higher resolution and reliability than Persona.

 


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