Spying on a Hubble Telescope Look-Alike


Amateur astronomer Ralf Vandebergh from the Netherlands is becoming well-known for his ability to capture images of the space shuttle, space station and other satellites in low Earth orbit. Recently, he tried his hand at something a little more distant: The Keyhole 11-4 satellite, which orbits at about 600 km (360 miles) above the Earth. The KH-11 series of satellites was the first American spy satellite to utilize optical digital imaging, and create a real-time optical observation capability for reconnaissance of other countries. There were about 10 of these satellites, launched by the American National Reconnaissance Office between December 1976 and 1990. These satellites are about same shape as the Hubble Space Telescope – a cylinder with solar arrays on each side, but a little bigger: according to Wikipedia, the KH 11’s are thought to be about 19.5 meters (63 feet) long, while Hubble is 13.1 meters (43.5 ft) long. Hubble’s orbit is similar, at about 353 miles (569 kilometers), but a big difference is that while Hubble is pointed out towards space, the KH 11’s are pointed back at Earth, looking at the happenings of humans.

Ralf emailed me with this newest image, and said, “Although we are too high in latitude in the Netherlands to see the known Hubble telescope, I did the following comparable observation,” adding that he was surprised to have captured clearly the body with some detail and signs of solar panels.

“‘High res’ images may sound questionable, but realize that we speak of a category object in range 600 km altitude, and you will understand that the recorded resolution is less than the images obtained on objects as the Space Shuttle and the ISS in almost halfway its orbital altitude,” Ralf said.

Ralf’s observations of the KH 11 satellite were obtained “in steady air in the night of May 23, 2010.”

Not much else is known about the KH 11 satellites, but only a couple of them are still operational. A US CIA employee went to prison for selling the technical manuals on these satellites to the Soviet Union.

Although no ‘official’ info is out there about the KH 11’s, they are believed to resemble the Hubble Space Telescope in size and shape because the satellites were shipped in similar containers. Also, a NASA history of the Hubble said that one of the main reasons for switching Hubble from a 3-meter main mirror to a 2.4-meter design “would lessen fabrication costs by using manufacturing technologies developed for military spy satellites.”

Just what can these satellites see on the ground? Assuming a 2.4-meter mirror, the theoretical ground resolution with no atmospheric degradation and 50% Modulation Transfer Function would be roughly 15 cm (6 inches), but actual resolution would be worse due to effects of the atmosphere.

So, Ralf was spying on the spies!

Check out his webpage on the KH 11 observation, which includes a “movie” of a KH 11 flare.

Thanks again to Ralf Vandebergh for sharing his very unique images!

15 Replies to “Spying on a Hubble Telescope Look-Alike”

  1. I think we should robotically visit and restore old KH-11’s, then fit them with a Centaur and send them to the Moon or Mars?

  2. The Air Force used mostly Titan III’s to launch the KH-11’s. That resource now ‘tapped out’? Why not use these existing on orbit resources? DEXTER to the rescue?

  3. And this is what I always find incredible.

    The Hubble is touted as a technological marvel, but it was launched when the NRO was transitioning to better, bigger platforms. The Hubble was based on dated technology – and it was still almost lost.

    At the price point of the KH11s, every Shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble costs more than a completely brand new one.

    Why-oh-why is our space program so backwards?

    Imagine what we could have had to day with several HSTs. Or with 4 m and larger optics, such as are being used this very moment to find out how big your bald spot is.

    I wish the NRO would completely absorb the NASA budget and in return just promise to turn 25% of its attention towards astronomy. I’m sure they’d like it, too.

  4. A US CIA employee went to prison for selling the technical manuals on these satellites to the Soviet Union.

    Despite that and similar leaks of “Classified” material, the Apollo Moon Landing Hoax conspiracy cranks still insist that N.A.S.A. ‘pulled a fast one’ — not once, but six times! — right under the noses of the bloody Russians!

  5. And more grist 4 mill.. I recall story about reason the HST mirror was out of focus was because the testing was done for a mirror optimised for 350 km distance rather than multi light year distance by Ball Aerospece. Tests were done, results said ok, but once on orbit …

  6. Harbles – I’ve heard the story before, but no, the Hubble is not a “back-facing” KH11, there are many other differences – think slew rate, light sensitivity, absorption spectra. It’s just that it used all the KH11 know-how.

    The problem could have happened (and for all that we know, it might have happened with KH11 too – except that in their case they just launched a new one instead of bothering to fix the bad one.)

  7. This “satellite photographing” seems to become a new sport activity!
    Once a week either the ISS with a space shuttle or some other man made object is photographed by an “amateur”. One should call for a world championship. Who gets the sharpest picture of this or that object? The location for the event is chosen depending on the target and when it can be easily detected.


  8. The lifetime of a KH-11 satellite in Space was some three years. The United States deployed at least 11 of these satellites in space, from Dec. 1976 to Nov. 1988. The Hubble Space Telescope basically is a “short” version of a KH-11 satellite.

    The KH-11 were followed by the KH-12 series. KH-12 are spy satellites equipped with a 4,04m mirror and weigh up 18,6 tons. Between 1992 and 2001, at least four of these were deployed in ellyptical orbits of 250 -1200 km. These orbits allow for a longer lifetime of these satellites.

    Since 2001, another four to six spy sattellites of at least the capabilities of the KH-12 were deployed in such orbits by the United States.

  9. I agree with you CrazyEddie. Although the KH’s are most certainly not usable as Astronomical instruments, the fact that there exist numerous optical telescopes with at least the sophistication of Hubble being lofted regularly just to peer back down and check out the minutiae of human affairs while the scientific community struggle to find funding for one or two of these per decade or so really pisses me off.

    Hubble’s time is oversubscribed by something like 20-1. Most submissions have great merit, but there simply isn’t enough time to go around. Imagine what could be done with a few Hubbles up there! But no, we have to piss away money on staring in through Kim Jong Ils balcony window, for a net gain of S.F.A.

  10. So the Hubble design wasn’t compromised by having the Shuttle as launcher, but the lift schedule was because of an unnecessary tie to that lifter (delay after Challenger accident)? Both news to me.

  11. This “satellite photographing” seems to become a new sport activity!

    The specialization in the sport?…photograph the satellite being painted with a guide laser.
    At the satellite spotting Olympics, gold medals will be awarded for ablating a signature (degree of difficulty=points and weight divisions=laser strength).
    The team sport of synchronised ablating would of course be frowned upon just as silly.

    Nice Work Mr Vandebergh

  12. I have extracted some images from the associated gif video: http://legault.perso.sfr.fr/rvdb_k11.jpg

    If you put a video camera on a telescope and you aim it at a star, the atmospheric turbulence will give images that are (more or less) distorted and spread in random figures (see the animations in http://www.damianpeach.com/pickering.htm). If you superimpose the unpredictable shaking effect of the movement of the telescope during manual tracking, you can transform a star into any possible figure (a satellite silhouette, the head of Dark Vador etc.), especially if you take hundreds of images, if you select the ones that fit your needs and if you enlarge them by a factor 2 or 3 (perhaps more) with over-subtle processing (and I do not talk about optical defects such as miscollimation or color Bayer matrix artefacts in the camera sensor) . You can see from these individual images that very different shapes are visible and that most of them could as well correspond to a completely different orientation of the satellite (and consider that these images have not been taken randomly in the video sequence but have been selected!).

    In addition, the orientation of the satellite in the drawing is pure speculation: we have absolutely no idea of the real orientation of the satellite during the passage. In summary, we can say that making a drawing of a satellite in an arbitrary orientation and selecting in the video sequence the images that recall this drawing (or perhaps doing the reverse: selecting arbitrarily distorted images and then making a drawing in accordance), and finally suggesting that they correspond…reminds me astrologers who justify their theories with pure coincidences carefully chosen! We must remain conscious that an image is NOT reality, it can even be very far from it, especially with an object that spans on only a few pixels. I’m afraid that all we can say is that the satellite has been photographed as a bright point passing in the sky and that the rest is total self-persuasion.


  13. I’m actually shocked by how many people actually believe the moon landing was a hoax. Sorry to divert off topic but I had a Captain in the United States Army ask me why NASA hasn’t used Hubble to look at NASA’s landing sites on the Moon. I tried to explain to him that a telescope of that nature isn’t used to close viewing but for distance viewing and he wouldn’t have it. I couldn’t believe that my Company Commander was that ignorant.

    I also have a Public Affairs Soldier below me who made a similar argument. I cannot believe that people don’t believe that we landed on the Moon. I’m almost disgusted.

  14. ” At the price point of the KH11s, every Shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble costs more than a completely brand new one”

    I absolutely agree with you on this point. My guess would be that servicing the Hubble gave the shuttle something to do. The dramatic rescue missions validated the need for manned space flight. It gave NASA invaluable media coverage in a time when shuttle launches were ignored.

    When a Discovery channel show about a new earth based telescope claims “10 times the resolution of the Hubble” I can’t help but smile. Ground based telescopes do fantastic research, but they don’t’ have the drama of a life or death space walk when they need fixing.


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