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KH-9 HEXAGON, and commonly known as Big Bird,[1] was a series of photographic reconnaissance satellites launched by the United States between 1971 and 1986. Of twenty launch attempts by the United States Air Force, all but one were successful. Camera film aboard Big Bird was sent back to earth in recoverable 'film return' capsules for processing and interpretation.

Officially known as the Broad Coverage Photo Reconnaissance satellites (Code 467), built by Lockheed Corporation for the US Air Force.[1]



The KH-9 was originally conceived in the early 1960s as a replacement for the Corona search satellites. The goal was to search large areas of the earth with a medium resolution camera. The KH-9 carried two main cameras, although a mapping camera was also carried on several missions. The photographic film from the cameras was sent to recoverable re-entry vehicles and returned to earth, where the capsules were caught in mid-air by an aircraft. Four re-entry vehicles were carried on most missions, with a fifth added for missions that included a mapping camera.

Over the duration of the program the lifetime of the individual satellites increased steadily. The final KH-9 operated for up to 275 days. Different versions of the satellite varied in mass; most weighed 11,400 kilograms or 13,300 kg. Satellites were manufactured by Lockheed and the camera was designed by Itek, but produced by Perkin-Elmer. There were 20 launch attempts and one failure.

Mapping imagery

Missions 1205 through 1216 carried a "mapping camera" (also known as a "frame camera") that used 9 inch film and had a moderately low resolution of 9.1 meters (somewhat better than LANDSAT). Intended for mapmaking, photos this camera took cover essentially the entire Earth with at least some images between 1973 and 1980.[2] Almost all the imagery from this camera, amounting to 29,000 images, each covering 3400 square km, was declassified in 2002 as a result of Executive order 12951,[3] the same order which declassified CORONA, and copies of the films were transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey's Earth Resources Observation Systems office. Images from the mapping camera covering the state of Israel and all imagery from the KH-9's other cameras remain classified.[4]

The KH-9 was never a backup project for the KH-10 Manned Orbital Laboratory. It was developed solely as a replacement for the Corona search system.

KH-9 launches

Name Mission no. Launch date NSSDC ID Other Name Launch vehicle
KH9-1 1201 1971 June 15 1971-056A OPS 7809 Titan IIID
KH9-2 1202 1972 Jan 20 1972-002A OPS 1737 Titan IIID
KH9-3 1203 1972 Jul 7 1972-052A OPS 7293 Titan IIID
KH9-4 1204 1972 Oct 10 1972-079A OPS 8314 Titan IIID
KH9-5 1205 1973 Mar 9 1973-014A OPS 8410 Titan IIID
KH9-6 1206 1973 Jul 13 1973-043A OPS 8261 Titan IIID
KH9-7 1207 1973 Nov 10 1973-088A OPS 6630 Titan IIID
KH9-8 1208 1974 Apr 10 1974-020A OPS 6245 Titan IIID
KH9-9 1209 1974 Oct 29 1974-085A OPS 7122 Titan IIID
KH9-10 1210 1975 Jun 8 1975-051A OPS 6381 Titan IIID
KH9-11 1211 1975 Dec 4 1975-114A OPS 4428 Titan IIID
KH9-12 1212 1976 Jul 8 1976-065A OPS 4699 Titan IIID
KH9-13 1213 1977 Jun 27 1977-056A OPS 4800 Titan IIID
KH9-14 1214 1978 Mar 16 1979-029A OPS 0460 Titan IIID
KH9-15 1215 1979 Mar 16 1979-025A OPS 3854 Titan IIID
KH9-16 1216 1980 Jun 18 1980-052A OPS 3123 Titan IIID
KH9-17 1217 1982 May 11 1982-041A OPS 5642 Titan IIID
KH9-18 1218 1983 Jun 20 1983-060A OPS 0721 Titan 34D
KH9-19 1219 1984 Jun 25 1985-065A USA 2 Titan 34D
KH9-20 1220 1986 Apr 18 1986-F03 (launch failed) Titan 34D

(NSSDC ID Numbers: See COSPAR)

Other U.S. imaging spy satellites


Data source: The Encyclopedia of US Spacecraft.[1]

  • Launch vehicle: Titan 3D/Agena
  • Total weight: 25,000 to 29,000 pounds (approx.)
  • Diameter: 10 feet (approx.)
  • Height: 4.5 feet (approx.)
  • Orbit: elliptical, 100 miles by 150 miles
  • Scanners: television, radio, and high resolution camera


  1. ^ a b c Yenne, Bill (1985). The Encyclopedia of US Spacecraft. Exeter Books (A Bison Book), New York. ISBN 0-671-07580-2.  p.32 Big Bird
  2. ^ NARA ARC database description of "Keyhole-9 (KH-9) Satellite Imagery", accession number NN3-263-02-011
  3. ^ "National Archives Releases Recently Declassified Satellite Imagery". National Archives and Records Administration press release. 2002-10-09.  
  4. ^ "Historical imagery declassification". National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.  


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