Corona was the name of a series of US military reconnaissance satellites operated under a CIA program run by the Directorate of Science & Technology with substantial assistance from the US Air Force, used for photographic surveillance of the Soviet Union, China and other areas from June 1959 until May 1972. The project name is sometimes given as CORONA, but it is a codeword, not an acronym.
The project was accelerated after the U-2 incident in May 1960.
The satellites were designated KH-1, KH-2, KH-3, KH-4, KH-4A and KH-4B. KH stood for Key Hole or Keyhole (Code number 1010) , and the incrementing number indicated changes in the surveillance instrumentation, such as the change from single-panoramic to double-panoramic cameras. The KH naming system was first used in 1962 with KH-4 and the earlier numbers were retroactively applied. There were 144 Corona satellites launched, of which 102 returned usable imagery.
The Corona satellites used 31,500 ft (9,600 m) of special 70 mm film with a 24 inch (0.6 m) focal length lens. Initially orbiting at 165 to 460 km, the cameras could resolve images on the ground down to 7.5 m. The two KH-4 systems improved the resolution to 2.75 m and 1.8 m respectively and used a lower altitude pass.
Ironically, the name Corona was more fitting than its originators had ever imagined. The initial missions of the program suffered from many technical problems, among them, mysterious fogging and bright streaks were seen on the returned film of some missions, only to disappear on the next mission. Eventually it was determined by a collaborative team of scientists and engineers from the project and from academia, (among them: Luis Alvarez, Sidney Beldner, Malvin Ruderman, and Sidney Drell) that electrostatic discharges (called corona discharge) caused by rubber components of the camera, were exposing the film. Recommended corrective actions solving the problem included better grounding of spacecraft components and outgassing testing of parts before launch. These practices are still used on practically all US reconnaissance satellites today.
DiscovererThe initial Corona launches were obscured as part of a space technology program called Discoverer, the first test launches for which were in early 1959. The first launch with a camera was June 1959 as Discoverer 4, which was a 750 kg satellite launched by a Thor-Agena rocket. The satellites returned film canisters to Earth in capsules, called "buckets", which were recovered in mid-air by a specially equipped aircraft during their parachute descent (they were designed to float in water for a short period of time, and then sink, if the mid-air recovery failed). The first camera-fitted Discoverer missions failed to return usable film, but following repeated recovery tests on August 18, 1960 with Discoverer 14, a bucket was successfully retrieved two days later by a C-119.
An alternative program named SAMOS included several satellite types that used a different method, taking an image on film, developing the film on board the spacecraft, and then scanning the image and transmitting it to the ground. The Samos E-1 and E-2 satellite programs used this technology, but it was not able to take many pictures and relay them to the ground each day. Later Samos programs, such as the E-5 and the E-6, used the film-return approach, but neither one was successful.
At least two Discoverer launches were used to test satellites for the Missile Defense Alarm System, an early missile-launch-detection program that used infrared cameras to detect the heat signature of rockets launching to orbit.
The Corona film-return capsule was later adapted for the KH-7 GAMBIT satellite, which took higher resolution photos.
Discoverer 13 was the first satellite that landed and was recovered on August 11, 1960. The last launch under the Discoverer name was Discoverer 38 on 27 February 1962; with a successful midair recovery of the capsule on the 65th orbit (13th recovery, 9th in midair). After that, the launches were entirely secret. The last Corona launch was on May 25, 1972. The project was abandoned after a Soviet submarine was detected waiting below a Corona mid-air retrieval zone. The best sequence of Corona launches was from 1966 to 1971, when there were 32 consecutive launch-and-film-recoveries.
- Source: USGS
DeclassificationCorona was officially secret until 1992. On February 22, 1995, the imagery acquired by the Corona and two contemporary programs (Argon and Lanyard) was declassified. Review of "obsolete broad-area film-return systems other than Corona" mandated by the order led to the 2002 declassification of the imagery from KH-7 and the KH-9 low-resolution camera system.
The declassified imagery has since been used by a team of scientists from the Australian National University to locate and explore ancient habitation sites, pottery factories, megalithic tombs, and Palaeolithic remains in northern Syria.
Popular cultureThe 1963 thriller novel Ice Station Zebra and its 1968 film adaptation were inspired, in part, by news accounts from April 17, 1959, about a missing experimental Corona satellite capsule (Discoverer II) that inadvertently landed near Spitsbergen on April 13 and was believed to have been recovered by Soviet agents.
- Corona page at NASA primary article source
- Dwayne A. Day, John M. Logsdon, and Brian Latell (Eds.), Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books. ISBN 1-56098-773-1 (paperback) or ISBN 1-56098-830-4 (hardcover).
- Robert McDonald, ed., Corona: Between the Sun & the Earth, The First NRO Reconnaissance Eye in Space. Bethesda, MD: ASPRS, 1997. ISBN 1-57083-041-X.
- Curtis Peebles, The Corona Project: America's First Spy Satellites. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-688-4.
- Phil Taubman, Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003 ISBN 0684856999
discoverer in German: Keyhole
discoverer in French: Corona (satellite)
discoverer in Dutch: CORONA (satelliet)
discoverer in Japanese: Corona
discoverer in Finnish: Corona (satelliitti)