Top Secret KH-11 Spysat Design Revealed By NRO’s Twin Telescope Gift to NASA

Graphic characterizes the off track imaging capability of the NRO KH-11 Reconnaissance spacecraft. Image Credit:

The design of the legendary  National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) KH-11 type digital imaging reconnaissance spacecraft,  top secret for 36 years,  has been revealed by the NRO’s transfer to NASA of two surplus recon satellite telescopes which NASA now hopes can be outfitted to look up instead of down.

NRO says the telescopes which have high tech lightweight mirrors far more advanced than Hubble’s were manufactured between the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Senior NASA and university astronomers have inspected the twin mirrored optics and found them to be superior to the Hubble Space Telescope for detecting and imaging extrasolar planets and gathering evidence to define dark energy. Highly mysterious dark energy accounts for 70% of  gravitational-like forces  in the cosmos that are now pushing continued expansion of the universe.

Highly accurate model of a top secret KH-11 digital imaging recon satellite in space illustrates the “Stubby Hubble” KH-11 characteristic with a shorter telescope tube and shorter focal length as well as a much smaller aft instrument bay than the full scale Hubble shown below. This matches the hardware given to NASA by the NRO and telescopic views of KH-11s in space imaged from observatories. KH-11s are also capable of “SatSquared” imaging of other spacecraft from great distances and they imaged the tile conditions on the belly of the orbiter Columbia during STS-1, STS-2 and other space shuttle missions. Photo Credit: The Space Review

Alan Dressler, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science told the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics that the NRO gift is “a game-changing opportunity to accomplish priority science programs [recommended by the]  New Worlds New Horizons” decadal survey completed in late 2010.

The top recommendation of the committee is for NASA to develop what was envisioned initially to be a $1.5 billion Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) with a 59 inch aperture.

In comparison the aperture on the two NRO telescopes is much larger— 94 in. (2.4 meters) exactly the same as the Hubble Space Telescope,  a capability that could turn one of the NRO telescopes into what astronomers are calling a “Super Hubble.”

Hubble Space Telescope imaged from the space shuttle during a servicing mission shows the longer telescope tube and instrument module compared with the “Stubby Hubble” design of the KH-11 telescopes gifted to NASA by NRO. Photo Credit: NASA

As NRO telescopes, the optics were designed for looking at objects on Earth to provide  up to 3.9 inch resolution from 200 mi. altitude or higher.

Dressler is part of a team tasked by NASA to determine if the NRO optics could be used instead for unprecedented deep space observations. The answer is “yes” he told the NRC committee.

Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, has visited the NRO hardware several times at its manufacturing plant , the ITT Exelis manufacturing facility in Rochester, N.Y.  After seeing the NRO telescopes he came away calling them “Stubby Hubbles”  because the focal length is shorter.

The shorter focal length means the NRO  telescopes can image at high resolution an  area 100 times bigger than Hubble’s Wide Field Camera-3, a visible / infrared instrument that has become Hubble’s most advanced and heavily used sensor.  And by imaging areas 100 times larger in a single image the more galaxies and objects in the cosmic zoo can be studied with a single image.

Hubble images a gravitational lens in action, showing that the gravity of a luminous red galaxy has gravitationally distorted the light from a much more distant blue galaxy so precisely that the background galaxy is now seen as a horseshoe — a nearly complete ring around foreground target almost fully encircled. Stronger gravitational lenses allow astronomers to determine the mass and dark matter content of the foreground galaxy. The NRO telescopes may allow NASA to develop a new infrared mission that can better see such lensing to better explain Dark Energy and help in the search for extrasolar planets. Photo Credit: NASA

Another key benefit is unlike Hubble, the secondary mirror on the NRO telescope can be moved by either ground control or on board instruments. This can be used to bring the image to an extremely fine focus.  The secondary mirror is supported by 6 struts and there are servo motors at the bottom of each strut. The six motors can maneuver all those struts to tweak the secondary mirror to achieve the finest focus possible. No doubt on still operational KH-11 type spacecraft and their offspring they still do zero in on terrorists and Iranian, North Korean, Chinese, Russian and other targets of intelligence interest.

The instrument bay on the NRO telescopes is just  5 ft. high, smaller than on Hubble. The Hubble axial instrument bay was large enough for astronauts to enter and stand upright to position near telephone booth size instruments. On top of the Hubble axial bay are radial bays around the circumference of the telescope,  large enough to insert instruments the size of baby grand pianos.

NASA at present is evaluating the use of only one of the telescopes with a lack of funding an issue on how to use even one. The WFIRST infrared mission recommendation is  highest concept being evaluated at this time.

Diagram shows light paths between the 59 in. (2.4 meter) primary mirror and the steerable secondary mirror in the KH-11 reconnaissance satellites, and the telescopes transfered from NRO to NASA. Image Credit: Charles P. Vick

Diagram shows light paths between the 59 in. (2.4 meter) primary mirror and the steerable secondary mirror in the KH-11 reconnaissance satellites, and the telescopes transfered from NRO to NASA. Photo Credit: Charles P. VickBy using the NRO optics for the mission,  NASA believes it could save about $250 million and years of development for WFIRST. Astronomers are hopeful a mission using the hardware can be funded by 2019 or the early 2020s. The NRO hardware is minus key subsystems like solar arrays, computers, attitude control systems or one or more instruments.

NRO is not allowing NASA to release any images of the optics aside from some graphics of  unclassified test hardware. And they have told NASA not to talk in any detail  about what is supposed to be now unclassified hardware. All of this has resulted in a ham handed approach to informing the public about a unique transfer of cutting edge intelligence hardware to the civilian science sector.

NASA’s attempt to hold a simple telecon with top level astronomy and astrophysics managers,  but limited to only NASA’s  hand picked media,  was an exercise in frustration, according to Keith Cowing, who heads

“NASA  Public Affairs (PAO ) botched this whole non-rollout rollout and NASA personnel were clueless as to what was going on,” said Cowing.

Computer graphic illustrates NASA’s original concept for a $1.5 billion Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) with just a 59 inch aperture compared with the 94 inch aperture now possible with the NRO gift of two KH-11 type telescopes that could also cut costs for WFIRST development by $250 million. Photo Credit: NASA

“In addition, it became clear that NASA had already [told] employees to respond to questions from the Washington Post and the New York Times and not to anyone else. NASA PAO said that they provided answers to inquiries. Sources within the agency tell me otherwise,” Cowing says.

I have had  my own experiences covering NRO’s move from film drop spacecraft like the massive KH-9s to the KH-11s which use the large telescope,  like given to NASA,  but linked to a digital imaging system.  Instead of using film,  the KH-11 and its follow on designs are linked to Satellite Data System (SDS) relay spacecraft and their successors (Including TDRSS) for transmission to NRO ground stations on a near real time basis.

The U. S. Air Force, the Army and Marine Corps favored keeping the film spacecraft because film could be manipulated and enlarged in so many different ways that the military services were familiar with.

There ensued an often angry argument between the Pentagon and CIA on how best to conduct top secret space reconnaissance as the Cold War raged. In a way both sides won because the KH-9 film spacecraft, marvels in their own right,  were kept operational for the first 10 years of  KH-11 digital imaging operations.

Lockheed Martin KH-9 film return satellites like this one served along with the newer KH-11s for 10 years. Two large swiveling cameras are in cavity aft of the four gold Mylar wrapped reentry vehicles. A mapping camera is mounted on the nose frame of the spacecraft where a fifth reentry vehicle was later mounted to return its mapping film. Photo Credit: NRO

But the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s  wanted digital imaging because such satellites would never run out of film, broadening the imaging targets to many more categories like political targets,  and getting the images to the ground much more quickly—within seconds or minutes— as opposed to weeks between film drops.

That resulted in the mid 1970s of development of the KH-11 line  and upgraded versions of digital imaging spacecraft in succeeding years. The NRO advises me that the term “Advanced KH-11”  still captures the gist of newer versions that may carry different designations now,  but still function much like the original KH-11s.

The first of these new highly classified spacecraft was launched by a Titan 3 heavy booster from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. in December 1976.

As space technology editor of Aviation Week at the time I had excellent sources in the intelligence community who told me in detail what this new spacecraft was doing and what it was called—the Keyhole 11.

An image of a Communist Chinese jet bomber taken by an NRO KH-11 spacecraft flying at more than 200 miles altitude illustrates the reconnaissance capibility of the 35,000 lb. spacecraft.

It was an extremely top secret project and as was our practice when we found out anything that important we always bounced it off senior military or intelligence officers to help us make a decision whether to run it or not in Aviation Week & Space Technology. A rule of thumb was if it was classified for political reasons, then we would publish, but if  it was for genuine national security we would hold off.

With this in mind early a few days after an unusual VAFB launch that was the initial KH-11,  I called the Air Force Colonel who headed Air Force Public Affairs and asked him for his views. After a long pause he said he needed to get back to me.

An hour or so later he called me back with a rather somber answer. “Covault the Chairman wants to see you.” he said. To which I asked , “The chairman of what?”  “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he roared back. Whoa this WAS serious.

I replied “How about first thing tomorrow.” To which he replied ,” How about 2 p.m. today!” When I got up that morning I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The first indication of what KH-11 optics could do came nearly 10 years after the first mission was launched when Jane’s Defense Weekly published highly classified satellite imagery of Soviet ships under construction at the Nikolaev shipyard on the Black Sea.. The images taken from more than 200 mi. high were leaked to the magazine by U.S. naval analyst Samuel Morison who spent 16 years in prison for providing the images to the news media. Jane’s never checked whether publishing the images would cause harm. It did by telling the Soviets that the KH-11s had the capability for image resolutions of 3.9-6 inches and excellent slant range capability.

I showed up at the Pentagon at the appointed time and was taken up to the suite of offices used by Joint Chiefs Of Staff then ushered into the office of Air Force General David Jones, a  four star that had commanded the Strategic Air Command before becoming Chairman. My escort then departed and it was just Jones and myself left to discuss this issue.

He said he was familiar with my coverage then asked “what have you got.” I explained in significant detail what sources had told me about the new reconnaissance system.

United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy lifts off from Vandenberg AFB on Jan. 20, 2011 sending the 14th KH-11 into polar orbit. Photo Credit : USAF

“You are exactly right” said Jones,  “and now I am going to give you the reasons why we request that you not publish”.

He then cited specific examples where the Soviets were not taking any measures to conceal what they were doing as this first KH-11 approached and passed overhead. Unlike the KH-9s, they did not realize yet that this was a high resolution imaging spacecraft that could see people, and tell if they were carrying a lunchbox or not.

Jones said the Soviets were leaving missile silo doors open allowing us to “look right in” and keeping their own new secret aircraft in the open.  If I published, it would ruin a major U. S. intelligence advantage. Jones had clearly demonstrated that no articles on the KH-11 should be written at that time so I agreed to his request to hold.

And on the way out he asked. “Now is there anything I can do for you?

There was certainly no Quid pro quo  in my mind for this discussion, so his question was a surprise. But when he asked that, I told him I had not received any consistent backgrounders on the Soviet space program. “You will have them now,” Gen. Jones said,  and for the next two years I received classified backgrounders on the Soviet space program at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

We continued to hold any mention of the KH-11 for the next two years until in 1978 a low level intelligence community employee named William Kampiles sold a Soviet agent in Washington the basic technical handbook for the KH-11. The cat was out of the bag in a very public way as the FBI had the Soviet Embassy under close surveillance and arrested Kampiles.

After allowing some time to pass I contacted the Pentagon and requested another high level meeting to inform them of my intention to begin describing the KH-11 and using its designation.

Chart shows U. S. reconnaissance satellite designs and the decades in which they have operated. At extreme right is a notional KH-11 somewhat longer that it actually is and the very large KH-9 phased out after a launch failure in 1986. KH-11 spacecraft cost more than $2 billion and two extra satellites ordered from Lockheed Martin after the Boeing optical Future Imaging Arcitecture contract collapsed cost more than $4 billion each. The Advanced KH-11s are gradually being replaced by top secret moderinized spacecraft . Photo Credit: Giuseppe De Chiara and The Space Review

Instead of meeting with the Chairman again, this time I was summoned to the White House and a meeting with Navy Adm. Dan Murphy, director of intelligence for the National Security Council and the late Les Dirks deputy director of science and technology at the NRO. There was also a third person present who did not want to be identified. I surmised that he was either intelligence community undercover, or Justice Dept.

The KH-11 was still a top secret program and the fact its manual had been sold to the Soviets did not  affect the government’s opinion that we should still keep it secret, even though other media had begun to mention it. Their position was that it “may not have” been made widely available in Soviet military and intelligence circles. But their arguments were going total political.

Finally I told them that in my opinion their arguments were not strong enough to justify a national security hold on our part. I pulled out a pocket calculator and said that if I could determine what a KH-11 was doing with this, then the Soviets could certainly do it especially since they were in possession of the operations manual.  I felt badly for crossing with Dirks who is  a genuine star in American intelligence lore who now even has a building named after him on the  CIA Headquarters campus.

I did agree to one major issue however, to keep secret for a while longer that the KH-11 was using relay satellites to move the data around in real time.

As the Hubble Space Telescope approached launch in 1990 I began to hear that the still secret design of the KH-11 type spacecraft was the “Stubby Hubble” also referred to by this new set of astronomers who have visited the NRO hardware.

As Paris Bureau Chief for Aviation Week I got a call in 1995 from a French astronomer who wanted to stop by and show me something that he had imaged through his observatory’s large telescope.

He set up a projector and inserted a single slide. When he projected it on a screen what appeared flying against the blackness of space was a “Stubby Hubble”,  a top secret KH-11.

The NRO “Launch 49” team that used a Delta IV Heavy in January, 2011 to launch a KH-11 mission composed this patch highlighting that the spacecraft was assembled with spare parts, then rose like a Phoenix from the flames and ashes of the $10 billion Boeing t failure to deliver on its contract for a new optical spacecraft line, forcing NRO to take emergency measures to restart the Lockheed Martin KH-11 production line. At the top the Latin phrase “melior diabolus quem scies” translates to “The devil you know…”, meaning that going back to Lockheed was better than continuing with Boeing to retool the program. Photo Credit: The Space Review


  1. As Paris Bureau Chief for Aviation Week I got a call in 1995 from a French astronomer who wanted to stop by and show me something that he had imaged through his observatory’s large telescope.

    Antoine Labeyrie, perhaps?

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