Discoverer 17 was operated in a low Earth orbit, with a perigee of 182 kilometres (113 mi), an apogee of 922 kilometres (573 mi), 81.8 degrees of inclination, and a period of 95.7 minutes. The satellite had a mass of 1,091 kilograms (2,405 lb), and was equipped with a panoramic camera with a focal length of 61 centimetres (24 in), which had a maximum resolution of 7.6 metres (25 ft). Images were recorded onto 70-millimeter (2.8 in) film, and returned in a Satellite Recovery Vehicle. The Satellite Recovery Vehicle used by Discoverer 17 was SRV-507.
Shortly after Discoverer 17 began operations, its SRV separated prematurely. Two days after launch it was deorbited and recovered, however only 52 centimetres (20 in) of film was found to be aboard, and no images were taken. Following the separation of the SRV, Discoverer 17 remained in orbit until it decayed on 29 December 1960.
In addition to its reconnaissance payload, Discoverer 17 also carried a biological research payload, intended to investigate human tissues in space. Since at the time the United States did not publicly acknowledge its reconnaissance satellite programmes, this was officially the satellite's primary mission. Unexpectedly high radiation levels during the flight led to the data from this experiment being considered particularly valuable by US Air Force scientists.
Payloads are separated by bullets ( · ), launches by pipes ( | ). Manned flights are indicated in bold text. Uncatalogued launch failures are listed in italics. Payloads deployed from other spacecraft are denoted in brackets.
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