Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Skywatchers Spot Secret U.S. Spy Satellite in Orbit | U.S. Delta 4-Heavy Rocket Launch, Amateur Astronomy

File:HST Lockheed Integration.jpgThe clandestine cargo carried into polar orbit Thursday aboard the first California-launched Delta 4-Heavy rocket was a crucial replacement satellite for the nation's surveillance and security network, amateur sky-watchers say.

The sophisticated imaging bird follows a long line of Keyhole-type spacecraft that provide ultra-high resolution imagery for the U.S. intelligence community, according to hobbyists who track orbiting satellites with remarkable precision.

Ever since the Delta 4-Heavy rocket fired away from Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the amateur observers have been hunting for the new satellite to figure out its identity. The conventional wisdom before the launch said the payload would fly into the Keyhole satellite constellation, and observations from the past few days proved the guess correct. ...

Needing to fill the void from the cancelled FIA program, the NRO ordered the construction of Keyhole satellites be restarted to build two additional satellites that would protect the nation's surveillance capabilities.

The mission patch for Thursday's NROL-49 launch actually included the Latin inscription: "melior diabolus quem scies." Loosely translated: "the devil you know." Better the devil you know (Keyhole) than the devil you don't know (FIA). ...

The triple-barreled Delta 4-Heavy dramatically rose into the clear sky with fire and smoke at 1:10 p.m. PST, then headed southward over the open Pacific for an ascent that Molczan said was timed perfectly to achieve the intended Keyhole orbit. ...

via Skywatchers Spot Secret U.S. Spy Satellite in Orbit | U.S. Delta 4-Heavy Rocket Launch, Amateur Astronomy |

The code named Kennan "Keyhole-class" (KH) reconnaissance satellites have been orbiting the Earth for more than 30 years. They are typically used to take overhead photos for military missions. The big question for a lot of people is: "What can they see?"

A KH-12 is a $1 billion satellite that resembles the Hubble Space Telescope, except it is looking at our planet. For security reasons, there are no published orbit schedules for the imagery spacecraft. They are supplemented by the 15-ton Lacrosse-class radar-imaging satellites.

You can think of a KH satellite as a gigantic orbiting digital camera with an incredibly huge lens on it. Optical image reconnaissance satellites use a charge coupled device (CCD) to gather images that make up a digital photograph for transmission back to Earth from an altitude of about 200 miles. Since the satellites are in orbit, they cannot hover over a given area or provide real-time video of a single location.

The satellites are often placed into various secret orbits by NASA space shuttles or Titan 4 rockets and managed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), headquartered in Chantilly, Va. Digital images from the satellites are analyzed, manipulated and combined by powerful computers at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

The black and white images are used by the military and civilian communities. Many of the details about this class of satellites remain classified, but it is known that there are several of these overhead at any given time. They have an imaging resolution of 5-6 inches, which means they can see something 5 inches or larger on the ground. These satellites probably can't read your house number, but they can tell whether there is a bike parked in your driveway. ...

via Howstuffworks

Image: Hubble Space Telescope integration at Lockheed. The KH-11 KENNAN satellite is  "believed to resemble the Hubble Space Telescope in size and shape, as the satellites were shipped in similar containers."


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