Space: Why Russia Still Uses Film In Spy Satellites


May 23, 2012: On May 17th, Russia launched its eighth Kobalt M reconnaissance satellite. The first one was launched eight years ago. The second Kobalt M went up in May 2006, in a very dramatic fashion. That launch was just in time, as their only operational spy satellite (a naval reconnaissance bird) had died the previous month. By the end of 2006, Russia managed to launch an electronic recon satellite and another naval recon satellite. At the time Russia had dozens of military satellites in orbit, but they were all for communications or everything but photo and electronic reconnaissance. Russia is still using a lot of birds designed with Soviet (Cold War era) technology. This is changing, as a new generation of satellites, built more to Western standards, is going up. But a lot of the older tech will remain in use for the foreseeable future.

Kobalt M satellites weigh 6.7 tons and contain three re-entry vehicles for returning film. Yes, a quarter century after the United States stopped using this method Russia continues to use film, instead of digital photography, for some of its recon birds. In the United States the last generation of film-using spy satellites, the Keyhole 9 (or KH 9), was used in 1984. The KH 1 through 9 series satellites sent film back in canisters (for high resolution pictures), to be developed.

The Keyhole 9, the first of which went up in 1971, was not only the last of the American film satellite designs but the largest and most capable. Its basic layout was used by the subsequent digital camera birds. The KH 9 could cover large areas at high (for the time) resolution of .6 meters (24 inches). This was more than adequate to spot and count tanks, aircraft, and even small warships. The 19th, and last, KH 9 went up in 1984. The KH-9 was a 13 ton satellite with multiple cameras and 4 or 5 reentry vehicles for returning the film for developing and analysis. The KH-9s were nicknamed Big Bird. The first film camera satellite, KH 1, went up in 1959. Thus for 25 years the film-using satellites supplied coverage of hostile nations.

Russia launched its first digital photo recon satellite in 1997. This Arkon model was not very successful. A more reliable Persona satellite (with higher resolution) went up four years ago. This was 22 years after the first American KH-11 went into orbit. The U.S. still uses KH-11s (much upgraded from the original), which have much higher resolution and reliability than Persona.


Article Archive

Space: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000 1999 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close