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Home > Fact Sheets > HEXAGON: KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite


Posted 10/16/2014 Printable Fact Sheet
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Basic elements of the HEXAGON KH-9, with mapping camera. (Photo courtesy of National Reconnaissance Office)
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HEXAGON KH-9 reconnaissance satellites were the largest and last US intelligence satellites to return photographic film to earth. HEXAGON provided vital intelligence and mapping photos from space that allowed US planners to counter Cold War threats. Between 1971 and 1986, 19 HEXAGON missions imaged 877 million square miles of the earth's surface.

The HEXAGON system improved upon the earlier CORONA satellites. Like CORONA, HEXAGON's main purpose was wide-area search, as opposed to close-up detail imaging like the GAMBIT satellites. Analysts could search broad and wide areas for threats with HEXAGON, then focus in on suspect areas with surveillance from GAMBIT satellites. Used together, these systems proved very effective.

The Lockheed Corp. built the basic HEXAGON vehicle. Its development included creating very complex cameras and film systems. The panoramic cameras, designated KH-9 and made by Perkin-Elmer, were two-part devices. Two separate cameras could work together to produce stereo images. Both cameras used a "folded path" to bend and focus light in a tight space using special mirrors and lenses to produce sharper photos.

The so-called "optical bar cameras" spun on their axes, each taking a long strip image perpendicular to the satellite's forward direction. Each successive strip overlapped a little, creating a very large panoramic picture. Objects smaller than 2 feet across could be imaged from around 80-100 miles altitude.

The Air Force launched HEXAGON KH-9 satellites aboard Titan IIID rockets from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and provided tracking and control at an Air Force facility at Sunnyvale, Calif.. USAF aircraft recovered film capsules in midair near Hawaii.

80-370 nautical miles
Mission duration: 124 days average
Panoramic camera: Perkin-Elmer, f/3.0, focal length 60 in., aperture 20 in.
Film: 320,000 ft. (60 miles) long, 6.6 in. wide
Image resolution: Better than 2-3 ft.
Film return capsules: 4
Payload weight: 7,375 lbs.

Click here to return to the Cold War Gallery or here to return to Cold War in Space: Top Secret Reconnaissance Satellites Revealed.

Find Out More
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Dr. Robert McDonald & Dr. James Outzen: Space Reconnaissance (01:02:22)
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Other Resources
National Reconnaissance Office
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