On December 7th Russia lost contact with a new military space satellite after it apparently failed to separate from the rocket. Ground controllers tried repeatedly to get the satellite free of the last stage of the rocket but failed and now the Kanopus RT ocean surveillance satellite will soon fall back into the atmosphere and burn up. This was one of a growing number of launch failures for the Russians. The loss of Kanopus was particularly painful as Kanopus took ten years to develop and build and was part of a program to catch up with the United States in satellite technology before the Chinese do. Russia thought it was making big progress since it had launched its first fully digital spy satellite earlier in the year and Kanopus was meant to close another gap, this time in monitoring naval operations.
While Russia lost the “space race” back in the 1960s (when the U.S. put men on the moon), they are still trying to catch up. By the late 1960s the Russians realized that putting people on the moon and bringing them back alive was not really worth it and concentrated on trying to catch up in more practical areas. Thus on February 28, 2015 Russia put its first photo satellite using digital photography into orbit. Called Bars M, it is expected to last five years. This is behind schedule as the last old-style (using film that had to be sent back to earth) photo satellites was supposed to go up in 2005. Instead Russia has had to launch another eight film using photo satellites since 2005 while waiting for the new digital bird to be ready.
The U.S. pioneered this technology in the 1970s and replaced the older tech (which Russia still uses) of using film photography. The older method required satellites to eject canisters to send film back to earth. This limits the number of photos a satellite can take and how long it will be useful.
The Russians still have a long way to go. Consider the ground the Americans have covered in this area during the last half century. It all began in the 1960s with the first appearance of the KH (Key Hole) series of photo satellites. The first film camera satellite, KH 1, went up in 1959 but the first successful one was in 1960. Thus until the 1970s the film-using satellites supplied coverage of hostile nations. 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 film satellites but the largest and most capable. Its basic design 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-9 were nicknamed Big Bird.
The age of film began to fade when the first digital satellite, the KH 11, was launched in 1976. These birds were large, nearly 15 tons, and the digital cameras could obtain better resolution and broadcast the photos back to earth. The resolution was such that objects 70mm (a few inches) in size could be identified from 200 kilometers away. Digital cameras were more flexible than film and eventually surpassed film in all categories. 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.
All 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 most recent KH-11, the 16th, was launched in 2013. There have been at least four models of the KH-11, since the first of five "Block 1s" was launched in 1976. Since the 1960s over a hundred KH series satellites have been launched.
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. Actually these birds were called KH-12s but are still officially known as KH-11.
While the U.S. was providing some publicity about their photo satellites, much less was said about the radar (mainly for ocean surveillance) and electronic monitoring (ELINT) birds. Russia was way behind in these areas as well. While Kanopus can be rebuilt, solving the reliability and quality control problems in the satellite launcher business has proved to be extremely difficult.