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Recovering secrets from film-era spy satellites

Recovering secrets from film-era spy satellites

Posting in Government

A look at the effort to declassify and digitize photos taken by defunct satellites--on old-school film.

To an untrained eye, the announcement that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is attempting to determine the most "effective and efficient options" to digitize "large volumes of high resolution photographic imagery" might not mean much. To those versed in the operations of the NGA--an agency tasked with gathering huge amounts of geospatial intelligence, or satellite imagery--this posting means something very specific: we may soon get fresh glimpse into history, as observed by the last of the film-based surveillance satellites.

The declassification of government satellite imagery is a notoriously slow process. The Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News provides context:

The declassification of historical intelligence satellite imagery has been largely dormant for many years. President Clinton’s 1995 executive order 12951 promised a periodic review of classified imagery... In particular, a review of obsolete film-return systems, such as the KH-8 GAMBIT and the KH-9 HEXAGON, was to be completed within five years. This was not done, or produced no results if it was done.

The recent appointment of Stephanie O’Sullivan, who has spoken specifically about the need to "reinvigorate" the release of satellite imagery, to the post Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence was seen as a promising change by transparency advocates, and likely has something to do with the NGA's latest solicitation.

Most people associate satellite imagery with services like Google Earth, but such products are a recent development. Before commercial satellites started beaming photos back to earth to be streamed to PCs and smartphones, satellite imagery was mainly an intelligence concern, accessible only to governments and used for surveillance purposes.

Satellites with earth-facing cameras have been around for many decades, and were orbiting well before digital photography came of age. Before the digital transmission of photos was an option, spy satellites--like the KH-1/2/3/4 "Corona" or KH-6 "Lanyard" satellites--were returning high quality photos to US intelligence services by physically dropping exposed film back to earth. The process by which these capsules were recovered is remarkable in and of itself:

In case that diagram isn't clear, what would happen is that a film capsule would be ejected from a spy satellite, deploy a parachute after reentry, and be recovered in mid-air by a passing plane. (This eliminated the possibility of the capsules' contents falling into enemy hands, in theory.) It's a hilariously unwieldy system by the standards of the digital era, but it was the way such things worked from the 60s through to the 80s, when digital image transmission finally matured, and real-time satellite reconnaissance became the norm. The photos most likely to be declassified in the coming year will have been taken by the most advanced film-based satellites, the KH-8 and KH-9 "Big Bird."

The solicitation asks for help with up to "4 million linear feet of film" up to seven inches in length, which implies that quite a bit of of data is set to go public. So, what will be in it, exactly?

Who knows! Such images would likely provide a fascinating perspective on historical events, given the dearth of high-quality satellite imagery from the era during which these satellites were active, throughout the Cold War. At the very least, the digitization of the imagery could provide a digital time capsule on a massive scale.

Though the photos collected by the satellites would only cover specific targets (don't expect anything resembling the total coverage found on Google Earth), the resulting collection would at the very least tell a fresh story about intelligence gathering during the time in America's history most associated with it.

Hat tip to Metafilter

Top image courtesy of the National Security Archive, showing the Soviet Dolan airfield, as photographed by a KH-4 satellite. Capsule recovery diagram courtesy of the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure