By © Charles P. Vick 2007 All Rights Reserved



The opinions and evaluations stated here in are only the author’s and cannot be construed to reflect those of any Government agency, company, institute or association. It is based on public information, circumstantial evidence, informed speculation, and declassified U.S. intelligence community documents, official US government documents and histories, oral histories, interviews and engineering analysis. As with all data regarding the intelligence programs of the US intelligence community, this analysis is subject to revision--and represents a work in progress.


The (Keyhole) KH-11, KENNON class imaging reconnaissance spacecraft was launched nine times with one launch loss on the Titan-3D and Titan-34D boosters. I was launched on an average inclination of 97.1 degrees with an average orbital perigee of 161 miles and an average orbital apogee of 377 miles with an average orbital life of 1,053 days for each spacecraft. It was first launched on December 19, 1976 and last launched November 6, 1988 . The maximum diameter of the spacecraft is 10 feet or 120 inches with an estimated length something over 43 feet. The long telescope barrel is on the order of 8.94-9.3 feet in diameter. Titan-23D could place 24,600 lbs in polar orbit while Titan-34D could place 27,600 lbs into polar orbit. The KH-11 SSB mass application is about 3,289 lbs dry while its fueled mass is about 10,568 lbs. The whole spacecraft dry mass is about 13,289 kilograms and the fueled mass is estimated between 24,500-25,800-27,500 lbs at orbital insertion depending on which booster is used. The KH-11 KENNON spacecraft was replaced in the early 1990’s by the KH- Advanced Crystal spacecraft.

The KH-11, KENNON spacecraft evolved from the technology applied to the KH-9A/B unmanned reconnaissance spacecraft and the KH-10, Dorian, Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) spacecraft that never reached maturity before it was out dated technologically. In general this series of successful spacecraft were based on the KH-1 through KH-8 series of highly successful Lockheed, Missile and Space Company, NRO reconnaissance spacecraft evolving design technology. Added to that technology that helped out date the film based MOL was the final maturing of the electro-digital imaging developed under the CCD Charged Coupling Device electro optical imaging electronics. This was the first truly successful use of the slowly maturing CCD technology from original television based technology attempts.

Electronic Optical Imaging Break Through

KH-11 represented a "quantum leap" over the already improved capabilities of the KH-9. Instead of waiting for film return and development, KENNON used an 800 by 800 pixel charged coupling device, providing a resolution of 640,000 pixels and allowing real-time transmission of images. Similar systems were attempted with Pioneer-SAMOS-A and Sentry-SAMOS-B and a test camera on KH-9, but KH-11 was the first successful electronic imaging satellite. The KH-11 used the mirror developed for the MOL, with a primary mirror width of 92 inches for the first mission, and increasing for subsequent missions. Because of astronaut tunnel requirement the MOL could only accommodate a 71 inch diameter primary mirror but KH-11 could accommodate a 92 -95 inch diameter primary mirror. If one of the MOL missions was to carry a 92 inch diameter primary mirror the standard rear tunnel for the spacecraft would have had to be modified or deleted all together in order to accommodate the larger telescope. This get into justifying the use of a manned mission for reconnaissance verses multiple cheaper unmanned reconnaissance missions vying for similar launch vehicles whose production was limited in that era. This and many other reasons are why KH-11 won out against the MOL, KH-10; Dorian film based manned spacecraft reconnaissance system. The unmanned technologies out raced the slowly developing expensive manned systems bringing into question the cost usefulness of the concept. Many of the manned related demonstration technologies were in fact absorbed into the Skylab program and successfully utilized.

Because the satellite was not limited by the amount of film onboard, the lifetime of a KH-11 satellite was much longer than that of a KH-8 or 9. The first mission lasted 770 days, and was placed in a higher orbit (150 by 250 miles) to reduce atmospheric drag. However, the digital system was not perfect. The power required to transmit data was greater than that provided by the solar panels, so the satellite had to be used sparingly at first.

Analysis of the leaked BLACKJACK photo showed that the KH-11 had a resolution of between 5.46 inches at apogee and 17.7 inches at perigee. (Other information indicates it has a resolution on the order 5.61-5.46-3.98 inches) The photo also revealed the satellite's capability to take photos at a steep slant angle.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, photographic intelligence satellite operations assumed a fairly standard pattern. Two KH-11s each with an operational life of about three years would be in orbit at all times. As an old satellite exhausted its maneuvering fuel, it would be commanded to reenter the atmosphere, and a new satellite would be launched a week or two later. A KH-9 film-return satellite would be launched in late spring each year, and operate until around the end of the year. And a KH-8 film-return satellite would be early spring, and operate for a few months.

The United States continued operations of a pair of KH-11 photographic intelligence satellites through most of 1988. The sixth KH-11, launched in December 1984 remained in service through late 1995, surpassing by almost a year the previously demonstrated service life for this class of satellites. Given this longevity, it must be assumed that this spacecraft has been assigned secondary responsibilities since the launch in October 1987 of the seventh KH-11.

KH-11 /6 (1984-122A 15423) was launched on 4 December 1984, and surprisingly enough continued in operation through October of 1995, flying in a 98 degree inclination orbit of 335 kilometers by 758 kilometers. Although the unusual longevity of this satellite (prior KH-11s had demonstrated a typical lifetime of about three years) would suggest that this spacecraft had long since expired, in late July it maneuvered to raise its perigee by about 50 kilometers, postponing its natural decay until well into 1992. This spacecraft was initially in the morning sun-synchronous plane entered by KH-11 /8, but subsequently has drifted about 7 or 8 degrees out of alignment.

KH-11 /7 (1987-090A 18441) was launched on 26 October 1987 and maintained an orbit of about 300 kilometers by 1000 kilometers, with an inclination of 98 degrees, which resulted in 14.76 orbits per day.

KH-11 /8 (1988-099A 19625) was launched on 6 November 1988, and maintained an orbit of about 300 kilometers by 1000 kilometers, with an inclination of 98 degrees, which results in 14.76 orbits per day. These satellites were in sun-synchronous orbits, which repeat their ground tracks at four day intervals, and are synchronized to provide two day overlaps in coverage. The 1987 spacecraft was in the late, afternoon plane, and the 1988 spacecraft was in the early morning plane (which it initially shared with the 1984 spacecraft).


DRAGON is the BYEMAN codename for the infrared imaging capability on CRYSTAL (advanced KH-11) satellites, which was subsequently discontinued and merged into CRYSTAL .

KENNON, KH-11 - Spacecraft Design Details

The KH-11 spacecraft consisted of several elements different from the previous series of spacecraft design that made it a new milestone in the development of unmanned space based reconnaissance platforms. First and foremost was the elimination of the recoverable film based imaging systems that were replaced with the near real time CCD, imaging system. The introduction of the Hubble like telescope CCD based electro optical camera system was a dramatic improvement over the previous much smaller KH-8 optical bar like imaging camera system. This larger Hubble like telescope has a fold back lid on the front of it to protect its optics when not in use. This folding optics telescope is lined internally with a flat black light reflect absorbing coating. Much of the telescope is believed to be made of a graphite epoxy composite structures with some aluminum reinforcing foundation elements for the 90-95 inch diameter primary mirror. The telescope is designed to accommodate the reeled up folded solar array system for launch operations. The optics could provide imagery resolution on the order of 5.61-3.937 inches. It solar arrays were very similar to the Hubble space telescope arrays in the sense that they were reeled out verses the original Satellite Support Bus’s fold out 11 panel solar arrays. This provided a lighter and less complicated solar array deployment system with less potential for deployment anomalies. They provided 1,500 watts each array for a total of 3,000 watts power at the start of the life of the spacecraft with the ability to rotate the arrays about one axis for solar orientation. The spacecraft carries two downward facing passive SIGINT antenna systems capable of receiving radio signals over the radio spectrum. It also carried the standard Lockheed horizon and earth sensors as well as a GPS antenna system and DSB system. The SSB is also believed to have carried both Sun sensors as well as a series of stellar star tracking sextant instruments. The near real time data relay dish is attached just behind the Hubble like telescope hatch front door. The data relay dish can transmit images and other required data to communications satellites that in turn send it to ground receiving station in near real time or in a store dump mode whose cycle is much less than 18-24 hours. Launch images of the KH-11 spacecraft have shown it has an instrument section just above the SSB propulsion bus. The spacecraft is covered with a multi layered blankets insulation covered by a silver colored coating with black striping for thermal heat dissipation much like seen in the earlier Lockheed KH-1-9 series spacecraft. Some area’s use a black and white polyurethane paint or covered aluminized Teflon surfaces or bear aluminum metal. There is no known documentation of the KH-11 spacecraft carrying sub-satellite for subsequent release.

Lockheed provided considerable insight into the propulsion support bus for the KH-11 spacecraft when it released the “SSB Satellite Support Bus,” Lockheed, Missile & Space Company Space Systems Division” documentation for space support payloads for satellite support conceptual development. The difference being that the solar array system described for SSB was not applied to the KENNON KH-11 spacecraft. Various details released on the KH-9B spacecraft also contributed to the understanding of the design of the KH-11, Satellite Support Bus SSB. From time to time Images taken by amateur astronomers of the KH-11 have been described to this analyst in addition to the available primary contract vendor literature and trophy award flag illustrations of the spacecraft clarifying the details.


1. McDowell, Jonathan, US Reconnaissance Satellite Programs, Part-1, Quest, Summer 1995 pp. 22-33

2. SSB Satellite Support Bus, Lockheed Missile & Space Company pp. 1-20

3. Commercial Titan-III Users Manuel

4. Bus-1 Implementation Concept for Space Station Alpha, Lockheed Missile & Space Company, Inc., Nov. 25, 1993.,ppp1-4, 17-31, 64.

5. Day, Dwayne Allen, Sensitivity About Gambit And Hexagon Imagery Declassification, History of the Gambit and Hexagon Programs, The Recon Report September 20, 2000, FPSpace, Aug. 30, 2000.

6. Quick Facts about the KH-7 and KH-9 Mapping Imagery

7. Declassified MOL and Gemini – B design details & Declassified MOL Baseline Configuration studies

8. Day, Dwayne A., A Failed Phoenix: The KH-6 LANYARD Reconnaissance Satellite, Spaceflight, Vol. 39, May 1997, pp. 170-174.

9. KH-6 Camera System declassified NPIC document February 1963.

10. Day, Dwayne A, Pushing Iron Spaceflight, Vol. 46, July 2004, pp. 289-293.

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