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Sturgeon's House

Catching a Falling Satellite with a Cargo Plane

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This concrete cross in the middle of the Arizona desert is mute testimony to the American spirit of can-do and getting things done, even if it's hard.


In the 1950s, the United States had taken upon itself the essential task of spying on the Soviet Union.  Why the hell they wanted to spy on a bunch of miserable commies waiting around in bread lines is beyond me, but the point of this story is that Americans can do anything they set their mind to, regardless of whether it's a good idea.


To this end the US contracted Lockheed to design the elegant U-2 spyplane.  This worked for a while, but eventually the damn commies developed a habit of shooting these things down.




Clearly, the commies weren't going to make it easy to spy on them.


The solution was to put the commie-spying-on camera on a platform that was both unmanned and in space.  To this end, the Corona satellite family was developed:


There was just one problem; while the astrogation systems (star trackers that could keep the satellite pointed at Earth), calibration systems (the big concrete crosses the satellites could focus on), and launch systems were all mature, digital communications had not yet been refined to the point where the satellites could beam over the images as a series of radio signals.  Film images from the satellites were printed on physical film.  The solution?  Shoot the film canisters out of the satellite and catch them mid-fall with a cargo plane.  Seriously:



These two films describe the process in more detail:




Eventually, high-bandwidth radio communications would be developed which would obviate the need for the mid-air snatch operation.  This was significantly less awesome, but also much more practical.

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  • 1 year later...

I believe the KH-9 HEXAGON was the last one to use film canisters.





Then they switched to electronic for KH-11, which looks not entirely unlike Hubble (there's speculation that the telescopes NRO donated to NASA were spare KH-11s).


KH-10 was MOL/DORIAN, which never flew (random trivia fact; the first black astronaut selectee, Robert Lawrence Jr., was picked for MOL). Though I've also rarely seen DORIAN associated with other projects; http://www.nro.gov/Portals/65/documents/foia/declass/DORIAN/04-CONFIGURATIONS.PDF



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