The KH-11 KENNEN, renamed CRYSTAL in 1982 and according to leaked NRO budget documentation currently going by the codename of Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL (EEC) (but also referenced by the codenames 1010, and "Key Hole"), 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 create a real-time optical observation capability.
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. 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. KH-11 satellites are believed to have been the source of some imagery of the Soviet Union and China made public in 1997, as well as images of Sudan and Afghanistan made public in 1998 that were related to the response to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings.
Program history and logistics
Data is transmitted through a network of communications satellites; the Satellite Data System. The initial ground station for the processing of the electro-optical imaging was a secret National Reconnaissance Office facility in Area 58, located in the continental United States according to the NRO, and more precisely in Fort Belvoir according to other sources.
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. USA-224, the first of these two, was launched in early 2011 two years ahead of the initial schedule estimate.
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. The satellites were reportedly stored in a clean room facility at ITT Exelis in Rochester, NY.
It is believed to resemble the Hubble Space Telescope in size and shape, as the satellites were shipped in similar containers. Furthermore, a NASA history of the Hubble, 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." A CIA history states that the primary mirror on the first KH-11s measured 2.34 meters, but sizes increased in later versions. 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.
A perfect 2.4-meter mirror observing in the visual (500 nm) would have a diffraction limited resolution of around 0.05 arcsec, which from an orbital altitude of 250 km would correspond to a ground sample distance of 0.05 m. Operational resolution should be worse due to effects of the atmospheric turbulence. Astronomer Clifford Stoll estimates that such a telescope could resolve up to "a couple inches. Not quite good enough to recognize a face".
Different versions of the KH-11 vary in mass, with earlier blocks ranging from 13,000 to 13,500 kilograms, whilst later blocks have a mass of around 19,600 kg. Its length is believed to be 19.5 meters, and diameter is 3 meters or less.
The two optical telescope assemblies (OTAs only, not full satellites) offered to NASA from the NRO in January 2011 were initially suspected to be KH-11 series "extra hardware" but later attributed to the Future Imaging Architecture program. KH-11 OTAs are of a three-mirror anastigmat (TMA) optical design (sans the 3rd "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.
KH-11 was the first reconnaissance satellite equipped with charge-coupled device (CCD) array technology for imaging which had a resolution of 800 x 800 pixels. Later block satellites may include signals intelligence capabilities and greater sensitivity in broader light spectrums (probably into infrared).
Later satellites had larger mirrors, with a diameter of around 2.9–3.1 m. 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.
Block I refers to the original KH-11 satellite, of which five were launched between 19 December 1976 and 17 November 1982.
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. The first or second Block II satellite was lost in a launch failure.
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), which adds reference markings for accurate mapping to images obtained by the satellite. Another improvement was an eightfold increase in the download rate compared to earlier models to facilitate improved real-time access and increased area coverage.
Three electro-optical satellites launched in October 2005, January 2011, and August 2013 are attributed to Block IV.
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, or an Enhanced Imaging System spacecraft. The satellites are sometimes identified as KH-12s.
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. Later, this term was reduced, and after serving 18 years, Kampiles was released in 1996.
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 Fighting Ships. 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. He was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001.
Nine KH-11 satellites were launched between 1976 and 1990 aboard Titan-3D and −34D rockets, with one launch failure. For the following five satellite launches between 1992 and 2005, a Titan IV launch vehicle was used. The two most recent launches in 2011 and 2013 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.
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. Historically launches have therefore been timed to occur either about two hours before or one hour after local noon (or midnight), respectively. The orbits are such that ground-tracks repeat after a certain number of days, currently each 4 days for the primary satellites in the East and West orbital plane.
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 degrees. The orbital plane of the secondary satellite in the East plane is located 20 degrees to the east of the primary satellite, while the orbital plane of the secondary satellite in the West plane is located 10 degrees to the west of the primary satellite.
|Launch date||COSPAR ID
|NROL number||Orbit||Plane||Orbital decay date|
|OPS 5705||1-1||19 December 1976||1976-125A
|N/A||247 km × 533 km, i=96.9°||West||28 January 1979|
|OPS 4515||1–2||14 June 1978||1978-060A
|276 km × 509 km, i=96.8°||West||23 August 1981|
|OPS 2581||1–3||7 February 1980||1980-010A
|309 km × 501 km, i=97.1°||East||30 October 1982|
|OPS 3984||1–4||3 September 1981||1981-085A
|244 km × 526 km, i=96.9°||West||23 November 1984|
|OPS 9627||1–5||17 November 1982||1982-111A
|280 km × 522 km, i=96.9°||East||13 August 1985|
|USA-6||2-1||4 December 1984||1984-122A
|335 km × 758 km, i=98°||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
|300 km × 1000 km, i=98°||East||11 June 1992|
|USA-33||2–4||6 November 1988||1988-099A
|300 km × 1000 km, i=98°||West||12 May 1996|
|USA-86||3-1||28 November 1992||1992-083A
|408 km × 931 km, i=97.7°||East||5 June 2000|
|USA-116||3-2||5 December 1995||1995-066A
|405 km × 834 km, i=97.7°||East||19 November 2008|
|USA-129||3-3||20 December 1996||1996-072A
|NROL-2||292 km × 894 km, i=97.7°||West||24 April 2014|
|USA-161||4-1||5 October 2001||2001-044A
|NROL-14||309 km × 965 km, i=97.9°||East|
|USA-186||3–4||19 October 2005||2005-042A
|NROL-20||256 km × 1006 km, i=97.9°||West|
|USA-224||4-2||20 January 2011||2011-002A
|NROL-49||290 km × 985 km, i=97.9°||East|
|USA-245||4-3||28 August 2013||2013-043A
|NROL-65||260 km × 1007 km, i=97.9°||West|
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.
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 inches 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.
|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|
Estimated unit costs, including launch and in 1990 dollars, range from US$1.25 to 1.75 billion (inflation adjusted US$2.29 to 3.21 billion in 2016).
According to 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) with its projected procurement cost of US$6.35 billion as of May 2005. 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$4.68 billion in 2016).
In April 2014, the NRO assigned a "(...) worth more than $5 billion (...)" to the final two legacy KH-11 satellites.
KH-11 image of a Tu-16 jet bomber operated by China.
U.S. reconnaissance satellite image of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, attributed to KH-11
KH-11 image of the Zhawar Kili camp in Afghanistan
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