KH-11 Kennen

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A conceptual drawing based upon Hubble Space Telescope (HST) layout.
A conceptual drawing based upon Hubble Space Telescope (HST) layout with internal views.

The KH-11 KENNEN[1][2][3][4] (later renamed CRYSTAL,[5] then Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System, and codenamed 1010[6] and Key Hole[6]) is a type of reconnaissance satellite first launched by the American National Reconnaissance Office in December 1976. Manufactured by Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California, the KH-11 was the first American spy satellite to use electro-optical digital imaging, and so offer real-time optical observations.[7]

Later KH-11 satellites have been referred to by outside observers as KH-11B or KH-12, and by the names "Advanced KENNEN", "Improved Crystal" and "Ikon". Official budget documents refer to the latest generation of electro-optical satellites as Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System.[8] The Key Hole series was officially discontinued in favor of a random numbering scheme after repeated public references to KH-7 Gambit, KH-8 Gambit-3, KH-9 Hexagon, and KH-11 satellites.[9]

The capabilities of the KH-11 are highly classified, as are images they produce. The satellites are believed to have been the source of some imagery of the Soviet Union and China made public in 1997; images of Sudan and Afghanistan made public in 1998 related to the response to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings;[citation needed] and a 2019 photo, revealed by President Donald Trump, of a failed Iranian rocket launch.[10]

Program history and logistics[edit]

The Film Read-Out GAMBIT (FROG) served as NRO Program A's competitor to NRO Program B's initial electro-optical imagery (EOI) satellite.[11] After a precursor EOI study with the codeword Zoster, President Nixon on 23 September 1971 approved the development of an EOI satellite under the initial codeword Zaman.[12] In November 1971, this codeword was changed to Kennen, which is Middle English for "to perceive."[13][14]

Data is transmitted through a network of communications satellites; the Satellite Data System.[5] The initial ground station for the processing of the electro-optical imaging was a secret National Reconnaissance Office facility in Area 58, later confirmed to be located in Fort Belvoir.[15][16]

In 1999, NRO selected Boeing as the prime contractor for the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program, aimed at replacing the KH-11 satellites by a more cost effective constellation of smaller, and also more capable reconnaissance satellites. After the failure of the FIA in 2005, NRO ordered from Lockheed two additional legacy hardware KH-11s.[17] USA-224, the first of these two, was launched in early 2011 two years ahead of the initial schedule estimate.[18]

In January 2011, NRO offered NASA two space optical systems with 2.4 m diameter primary mirrors, similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, yet with steerable secondary mirrors and shorter focal length resulting in a wider field of view. These could either be spare hardware from the KH-11 program, or optics from the cancelled FIA program.[19][20] The satellites were reportedly stored in a clean room facility at ITT Exelis in Rochester, New York.[21][22]


The Hubble Space Telescope integration at Lockheed.
A Dynamical Test Unit of KH-11 (unconfirmed) Three Mirror Assembly.

Size and mass[edit]

KH-11s are believed to resemble the Hubble Space Telescope in size and shape, as the satellites were shipped in similar containers. Their length is believed to be 19.5 meters, with a diameter of up to 3 meters.[5][23] A NASA history of the Hubble,[24] in discussing the reasons for switching from a 3-meter main mirror to a 2.4-meter design, states: "In addition, changing to a 2.4-meter mirror would lessen fabrication costs by using manufacturing technologies developed for military spy satellites."

Different versions of the KH-11 vary in mass. Early KH-11s were reported to be comparable in mass to the KH-9 Hexagon,[25] i.e. about 12,000 kg. Later blocks are believed to have a mass of around 17,000 kg[26] to 19,600 kg.[27][5]

Propulsion module[edit]

It has been reported that KH-11s are equipped with a hydrazine-powered propulsion system for orbital adjustments. In order to increase the orbital lifetime of KH-11s, plans existed for refuelling the propulsion module during service visits by the Space Shuttle.[25] It has been speculated that the propulsion module is related to Lockheed's Satellite Support Bus (SSB), which had been derived from the Satellite Control Section (SCS) developed by Lockheed for KH-9.[28]

Optical Telescope Assembly[edit]

A CIA history states that the primary mirror on the first KH-11s measured 2.34 meters, but sizes increased in later versions.[5] NRO led the development of a computer controlled mirror polishing technique, which was subsequently also used for the polishing of the primary mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope.[29]

Later satellites had larger mirrors, with a diameter of around 2.9–3.1 m[30] Jane's Defence Weekly indicates that the secondary mirror in the Cassegrain reflecting telescope system could be moved, allowing images to be taken from angles unusual for a satellite. Also, there are indications that the satellite can take images every five seconds.[citation needed]

Imaging sensors and camera modes[edit]

The initial KH-11 camera system offered frame and strip modes.[31] The focal plane was equipped with an array of light-sensitive diodes, which converted brightness values to electrical signals. The packaging density was sufficiently high (several hundred diodes per inch) to match the ground sample distance of the CORONA satellites. The recorded digital signal was transmitted to a ground station in near real time, and written to film by means of a laser in order to recreate the recorded image.[32] KH-11 Block II might have been the first reconnaissance satellite equipped for imaging with a 800 × 800 pixels charge-coupled device (CCD).[33] Later block satellites may include signals intelligence capabilities and greater sensitivity in broader light spectrums (probably into infrared).[34]


Communication to and data downloads from KH-11 satellites are routed through a constellation of communication relay satellites in higher orbits. The initial communications relay payload is believed to have operated at a frequency of 60 GHz, as radio emission at this frequency is blocked by Earth's atmosphere, and thus not detectable from the ground. Launch of the initial two Satellite Data System satellites occurred in June and August 1976, i.e. ahead of the first launch of a KH-11 satellite in late 1976.[35]

Resolution and ground sample distance[edit]

A perfect 2.4 m mirror observing in the visual (i.e. at a wavelength of 500 nm) has a diffraction limited resolution of around 0.05 arcsec, which from an orbital altitude of 250 km corresponds to a ground sample distance of 0.06 m (6 cm, 2.4 inches). Operational resolution should be worse due to effects of the atmospheric turbulence.[36] Astronomer Clifford Stoll estimates that such a telescope could resolve up to "a couple inches. Not quite good enough to recognize a face".[37]

In the 2012 National Reconnaissance Office space telescope donation to NASA, the two Optical Telescope Assemblies (OTA) were suspected to be KH-11 series "extra hardware", but were later attributed to the Future Imaging Architecture program. The donated OTAs feature a three-mirror anastigmat (TMA) optical design, without the tertiary mirror. The f/1.2 primary has a diameter of 2.4 m, and is refocused by the secondary to give an overall f/8 focal ratio, making the optical telescope assembly shorter than that of HST. With the addition of the tertiary mirror, this will produce a much wider field than Hubble's 2-mirror f/24 Ritchey–Chrétien optical design, making it a potentially ideal observatory for dark energy or other astrophysics surveys. The secondary mirror is mounted on a hexapod to increase the side-viewing and ground scanning ability for the originally intended reconnaissance mission.[21][22][38]

KH-11 generations[edit]

Five generations of U.S. electro-optical reconnaissance have been identified:[39][40]

Block I[edit]

Block I refer to the original KH-11 satellite, of which five were launched between 19 December 1976 and 17 November 1982.

Block II[edit]

The three Block II satellites are in the open literature referred to as KH-11B, the alleged DRAGON codename, or Crystal, and are believed to be capable of taking infrared images in addition to optical observations.[41] The first or second Block II satellite was lost in a launch failure.[40]

Block III[edit]

Four Block III satellites, commonly called KH-12 or Improved Crystal were launched between November 1992 and October 2001. The name "Improved Crystal" refers to the "Improved Metric CRYSTAL System" (IMCS). Metric describes the capability to fix Datum references (markings) in an image relative to the World Geodetic System for mapping purposes.[42][43] Another improvement was an eightfold increase in the download rate compared to earlier models to facilitate improved real-time access and increased area coverage.[44] From Block III on, the typical lifetime of the satellites increased to about 15 years, possibly related to a higher lift-off mass, which facilitates larger fuel reserves for countering atmospheric drag.[45]

Block IV[edit]

Three electro-optical satellites launched in October 2005, January 2011, and August 2013 are attributed to Block IV.

Block V[edit]

Launch of NROL-82 on Delta IV Heavy

A new generation of clandestine communications satellites launched to inclined geosynchronous orbits have led to speculations that these are in support of Block V electro-optical satellites scheduled for launch in late 2018 (NROL-71) and 2021 (NROL-82).[46] The two satellites have been built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, have a primary mirror with a diameter of 2.4 m, and are evolutionary upgrades to the previous blocks built by Lockheed.[47]

Based on the published hazard areas for the launch, an orbital inclination of 74° has been deduced for NROL-71. This could indicate that NROL-71 is targeted for a Type II Multi Sun-Synchronous Orbit,[48] which would enable the satellite to study the ground at a range of local hour effects (shadow direction and length, daily activities, etc.).[49][50]


The Misty satellite is believed to have been derived from the KH-11, but modified to make it invisible to radar, and hard to detect visually. The first Misty satellite, USA-53, was released by the Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-36. The USA-144 satellite, launched on 22 May 1999 by a Titan IVB from Vandenberg Air Force Base may have been a second Misty satellite,[51] or an Enhanced Imaging System spacecraft. The satellites are sometimes identified as KH-12s.


A KH-11 image of the construction of a Kiev-class aircraft carrier, as published by Jane's in 1984.
An image (resolution ~10 cm/px) of the damaged launch pad at Imam Khomeini Spaceport after a rocket explosion on 29 August 2019, speculated as being taken by a KH-11.

In 1978, a young CIA employee named William Kampiles was accused of selling a KH-11 System Technical Manual describing design and operation to the Soviets. Kampiles was convicted of espionage and initially sentenced to 40 years in prison.[52][53] Later, this term was reduced, and after serving 18 years, Kampiles was released in 1996.[54][55]

In 1984 Samuel Loring Morison, an intelligence analyst at the Naval Intelligence Support Center, forwarded three classified images taken by KH-11 to the publication Jane's Defence Weekly. In 1985, Morison was convicted in Federal Court on two counts of espionage and two counts of theft of government property, and was sentenced to two years in prison.[56] He was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001.[57]

In 2019 Donald Trump, then President of the United States, tweeted a previously classified[10] image of the aftermath of a failed test of Iran's Safir rocket, which some believe was taken from the USA-224 satellite.[58][59]

KH-11 missions[edit]

All KH-11 Keyhole satellites on orbit, orbital constellation status of September 2013.

Nine KH-11 satellites were launched between 1976 and 1990 aboard Titan-3D and Titan-34D rockets, with one launch failure. For the following five satellite launches between 1992 and 2005, a Titan IV launch vehicle was used. The three most recent launches since 2011 were carried out by Delta IV Heavy rockets. The KH-11 replaced the KH-9 film return satellite, among others, the last of which was lost in a liftoff explosion in 1986.

All KH-11 satellites are in either of two standard planes in Sun-synchronous orbits. As shadows help to discern ground features, satellites in a standard plane east of a noon/midnight orbit observe the ground at local afternoon hours, while satellites in a western plane observe the ground at local morning hours.[60][61][62] Historically launches have therefore been timed to occur either about two hours before or one hour after local noon (or midnight), respectively.[40] The orbits are such that ground-tracks repeat after a certain number of days, currently each four days for the primary satellites in the East and West orbital plane.[63]

The constellation consists of two primary and two secondary satellites (one primary and one secondary per plane). The orbital planes of the two primary satellites in the East and West plane are separated by 48° to 50°. The orbital plane of the secondary satellite in the East plane is located 20° to the east of the primary satellite, while the orbital plane of the secondary satellite in the West plane is located 10° to the west of the primary satellite.[63][64]

Name KH-11
Launch date COSPAR ID[65]
Launch designation Orbit Plane[61] Orbital decay date
OPS 5705 1-1 19 December 1976 1976-125A[66]
N/A 247 km × 533 km, i=96.9° West 28 January 1979
OPS 4515 1-2 14 June 1978 1978-060A[67]
276 km × 509 km, i=96.8° West 23 August 1981
OPS 2581 1-3 7 February 1980 1980-010A[68]
309 km × 501 km, i=97.1° East 30 October 1982
OPS 3984 1-4 3 September 1981 1981-085A[69]
244 km × 526 km, i=96.9° West 23 November 1984
OPS 9627 1-5 17 November 1982 1982-111A[70]
280 km × 522 km, i=96.9° East 13 August 1985
USA-6 2-1 4 December 1984 1984-122A[71]
335 km × 758 km, i=98°[41] West 10 November 1994
Unknown 2-2 28 August 1985 N/A Failed to orbit East N/A
USA-27 2-3 26 October 1987 1987-090A[72]
300 km × 1000 km, i=98°[41] East 11 June 1992
USA-33 2-4 6 November 1988 1988-099A[73]
300 km × 1000 km, i=98°[41] West 12 May 1996
USA-86 3-1 28 November 1992 1992-083A[74]
408 km × 931 km, i=97.7°[75] East 5 June 2000
USA-116 3-2 5 December 1995 1995-066A[76]
405 km × 834 km, i=97.7°[77] East 19 November 2008
USA-129 3-3 20 December 1996 1996-072A[78]
NROL-2 292 km × 894 km, i=97.7°[79] West 24 April 2014[80]
USA-161 3-4 5 October 2001 2001-044A[81]
NROL-14 309 km × 965 km, i=97.9°[82] East late 2014[83]
USA-186 4-1 19 October 2005 2005-042A[84]
NROL-20 263 km × 450 km, i=97.9°[85] West
USA-224 4-2 20 January 2011 2011-002A[86]
NROL-49 290 km × 985 km, i=97.9°[87] East
USA-245 4-3 28 August 2013 2013-043A[88]
NROL-65 260 km × 1007 km, i=97.9°[89] West
USA-290 5-1? 19 January 2019 2019-004A[90]
NROL-71 395 km × 420 km, i=73.6°[91] N/A
USA-314 5-2? 26 April 2021 2021-032A[92]
NROL-82 548 km × 773 km, i=98.0°[93] East
A bright pass of USA-129, a Block III satellite.

KH-11 satellites require periodic reboosts to counter atmospheric drag, or to adjust their ground track to surveillance requirements. Based on data collected by amateur observers, the following orbital characteristics of OPS 5705 were calculated by amateur skywatcher Ted Molczan.[94]

OPS 5705
Time period
Apogee at end of period
19 December 1976 – 23 December 253 km (157 mi) 541 km (336 mi) 541 km (336 mi)
23 December 1976 – 27 March 1977 348 km (216 mi) 541 km (336 mi) 537 km (334 mi)
27 March 1977 – 19 August 270 km (170 mi) 537 km (334 mi) 476 km (296 mi)
19 August 1977 – 1978 January 270 km (170 mi) 528 km (328 mi) 454 km (282 mi)
1978 January – 28 January 1979 263 km (163 mi) 534 km (332 mi) Deorbited

On 4 September 2010, amateur astrophotographer Ralf Vandebergh took some pictures of a KH-11 (USA-129) satellite from the ground. The pictures, despite being taken with a 10-inch aperture telescope from a range of 336 kilometers, show major details such as dishes and solar panels, as well as some elements whose function is not known.[95]


Estimated unit costs, including launch and in 1990 dollars, range from US$1.25 to 1.75 billion (inflation adjusted US$2.48 to 3.47 billion in 2020).[34]

According to Republican Senator Kit Bond initial budget estimates for each of the two legacy KH-11 satellites ordered from Lockheed in 2005 were higher than for the latest Nimitz-class aircraft carrier (CVN-77)[17] with its projected procurement cost of US$6.35 billion as of May 2005.[96] In 2011, after the launch of USA-224, DNRO Bruce Carlson announced that the procurement cost for the satellite had been US$2 billion under the initial budget estimate, which would put it at about US$4.4 billion (inflation adjusted US$5.06 billion in 2020).[18]

In April 2014, the NRO assigned a "worth more than $5 billion" to the final two legacy KH-11 satellites.[97]

Image gallery[edit]

See also[edit]


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  • Aviation Week, 25 October 2005, p. 29

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]