Published March 14, 2016
HEXAGON KH-9 reconnaissance satellites featured four recovery vehicles or “buckets” that dropped back to earth from orbit carrying exposed reconnaissance camera film for processing. A mapping camera attached for some missions at the front of the satellite added a fifth, smaller bucket. U.S. Air Force aircraft snatched the parachuting buckets in midair over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
HEXAGON film return buckets had to be maneuverable, vacuum-sealed, temperature-controlled, lightweight, strong and recoverable. Once ejected from the HEXAGON vehicle, a small retro-rocket rocket slowed the vehicles for atmospheric re-entry, with smaller thrusters providing, and then slowing, a stabilizing spin.
The outer cover of high-temperature resin charred away to carry off heat during re-entry. Another thermal cover, plus an array of thermostats and sensors, kept the film at the correct temperature in space and during descent. Once the vehicle reached about 50,000 feet, parachutes slowed its descent. Battery-operated radio signal emitters helped aircraft locate the buckets, which could float if they landed in the ocean. McDonnell-Douglas built the KH-9’s Mark 8 recovery vehicles, while General Electric made the mapping camera’s smaller Mark V vehicles.
This artifact is on loan from the National Reconnaissance Office (Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance).
TECHNICAL NOTES (KH-9 Mark 8 vehicle):
Film load: 52,000-77,500 feet of film maximum per vehicle
Film weight: 500 lbs. maximum per vehicle
Vehicle weight: 956 lbs.
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