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Hexagon satellite system

Film rentry vehicle on ocean floor

Piece of the gold film canister

Recovery capsule

Gold film canister

Film stacks from the KH-9 Hexagon

Encoder and Al motor drive electronics

Disintegrating stacks

An intact reentry vehicle for the Hexagon spy satellite

Hexagon reentry vehicle

The capsule encoder

Al motor drive electronics

Trieste II recovery vehicle

Trieste II and recovery arm

In 1971, the KH-9 Hexagon was the United States' most advanced spy device -- a brand new photographic reconnaissance satellite as large as a school bus that carried more than 60 miles of high-resolution photographic film for surveillance missions. The 6-inch wide Hexagon film frame captured a field of view of around 370 miles, with a resolution of about 2 to 3 feet, according to the National Reconnaissance Office.

The film images were sent back to Earth in recoverable return capsules. Entering the Earth's atmosphere, the canisters deployed a parachute and were then snagged by a plane in mid-air and returned to base for processing and analysis.

But in July 1971, the third reentry vehicle from the first Hexagon photo-satellite mission was lost, when the parachute broke, sending the canister into the open sea near Hawaii. The bucket sank on impact to a depth of more than 16,400 feet. This was sensitive info -- photographs of the Soviet Union's submarine bases and missile silos -- and the decision was made to attempt to recover the valuable intelligence data.

This week, the CIA released documents relating to the spy satellite incident and the recovery mission. Here's an illustration of the Hexagon system.

Caption by / Photo by National Reconnaissance Office
A photo of the film reentry vehicle on ocean floor taken by the Trieste II deep sea vehicle.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
Documents released relating to the Hexagon recovery describe this image as the first piece of debris that was sighted. The document reads, "It appears to be a piece of the gold canister and part of the grey RV support pallet."
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
Several of the black take-up support arms of the recovery capsule can be seen here.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
Figure IV C of the document shows photographs of the main portion of the gold film canister as well as the film spools.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
CIA documents identify Figure IV D as an outstanding picture of the film stacks, looking down at the stacks.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
Figure IV E, seen here, shows that the stacks were recovered intact, but Figure IV F, next slide, shows them disintegrating as they are brought to the surface.
Caption by / Photo by CIA/Historical Collections Division
Figure IV E (previous slide) shows that the stacks were recovered intact, but Figure IV F, seen here, shows them disintegrating as they are brought to the surface.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
An intact reentry vehicle for the Hexagon spy satellite.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
An in-tact Hexagon reentry vehicle before being launched into orbit.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
The capsule encoder of the film recovery unit.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
The white lettering on the A1 motor drive electronics is part of the serial number on the encoder from the film recovery capsule.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
The ship left Pearl Harbor in Hawaii for the Pacific crash site on November 21, 1971.

Prior to this mission, the Trieste II recovery vehicle had never gone below 10,000 feet underwater and the film was at more than 16,000 feet. It is conveyed in CIA documents that "the decision was made to attempt the deep sea recovery of the RV primarily for the intelligence value of the film record and secondly to establish a capability for deep oceanographic recovery."

Documents chronicling the recovery of the satellite film say "the reliability of the Trieste II was relatively poor. There was a major subsystem failure on each of the three dives."
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
Trieste II and recovery arm from CIA documents related to the photoreconnaissance satellite recovery.
Caption by / Photo by CIA Historical Collections Division
Updated:
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