Published March 14, 2016
DAYTON, Ohio -- The HEXAGON KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite in the Space Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jim Copes)
HEXAGON KH-9 reconnaissance satellite in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
DAYTON, Ohio -- The HEXAGON KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite (rear view) in the Space Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)
DAYTON, Ohio -- The HEXAGON KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite being moved into the fourth building at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force on May 10, 2016. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
Basic elements of the HEXAGON KH-9, with mapping camera. (Photo courtesy of National Reconnaissance Office)
Drawing showing the side-by-side arrangement of HEXAGON’s twin rotating KH-9 panoramic cameras. You can see both cameras on the underside of the satellite. (Photo courtesy of National Reconnaissance Office)
This drawing shows the extremely complex path of HEXAGON KH-9 main camera film. It ran through more than 100 rollers and precision “air bar” assemblies where it floated on a cushion of gas. The feed reels are on the right, and the four return capsules are on the left, with the cameras in the middle. Film moved at up to 200 inches per second inside the airtight, light-tight, pressurized, climate-controlled film path. (Photo courtesy of National Reconnaissance Office)
HEXAGON KH-9 reconnaissance satellites were the largest and last U.S. intelligence satellites to return photographic film to earth. During the Cold War, 19 HEXAGON missions imaged 877 million square miles of the Earth’s surface between 1971-1986.
HEXAGON’s main purpose was wide-area search. Analysts pored over HEXAGON’s photos of large areas, then focused in on potential threats with close-up surveillance from GAMBIT satellites.
The Lockheed Corp. built the HEXAGON vehicle. Its development included creating a very complex camera and film system. The satellite featured two separate cameras, designated KH-9 and made by the Perkin-Elmer Corp., working together to produce stereo images. These so-called “optical bar cameras” on the bottom of the satellite spun on their axes, taking overlapping images to form a very large panoramic picture. Objects smaller than two feet across could be imaged from around 80-100 miles altitude.
Some missions included a separate mapping camera mounted at the front of the satellite. This camera imaged wider areas to make very accurate maps for war planning and featured its own bucket-like film return vehicle.
The U.S. Air Force launched HEXAGON satellites aboard Titan IIID rockets from Vandenberg AFB, California, and provided tracking and control at an Air Force facility at Sunnyvale, Calif. USAF aircraft recovered film return vehicles in midair near Hawaii.
This artifact is on loan from the National Reconnaissance Office (Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance).
Altitude: 80-370 nautical miles
Mission duration: 124 days average
Panoramic cameras: Perkin-Elmer, 60-inch focal length f/3.0, aperture 20 inches
Mapping camera: Itek, 12-inch focal length f/6.0, 9.5 in film, with two Itek 10-in focal length f/2.0, 70mm film cameras for star-tracking position reference
Film: length 320,000 feet (about 60 miles), width 6.6 inches
Film return vehicles: Four (five if mapping camera used)
Click here to return to the Space Gallery or here to return to Cold War in Space: Top Secret Reconnaissance Satellites Revealed.
Please note Springfield Street, the road that leads to the museum’s entrance, is undergoing construction through the beginning of September. Expect lane reductions and some delays. Please follow the signs and instructions provided by the road crews.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is located at:
1100 Spaatz Street
Wright-Patterson AFB OH 45433
(near Dayton, Ohio)