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[] Jane's 17.10.01: US space-based reconnaissance reinforced,

17 October 2001 
US space-based reconnaissance reinforced

Extracted and adapted from Jane?s Space Directory

The launch of a Titan 4B rocket from Vandenburg Air Force Base on 5 October with a giant satellite identified as USA 161 indicates that a fourth or maybe fifth Advanced KH-11 (Improved Crystal) photo-reconnaissance satellite has been placed in orbit to assist with target location and damage assessment for Operation ?Enduring Freedom?. 

Improved Crystal (variously referred to as the KH-12 or Advanced KH-11) is an enhanced version of the KH-11 system used during the 1990-91 Gulf War. At 16,300kg it is much heavier than the KH-11 and has greater orbit manoeuvring potential from the 6,350kg of propellant it carries in the aft support module. Moreover, with improved sensors operating in visible and near infra-red portions of the spectrum, Improved Crystal is capable of thermal imaging to determine whether facilities under surveillance are active are not. 

The telescope itself takes the configuration of a folded Cassegrain type with a 4m diameter primary mirror but with a secondary mirror that can obtain images far to the left or right of the satellite's ground track, albeit with diminished resolution. The similarity between the Improved Crystal generation and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope can be inferred. The use of low light-level CCD image intensifiers allows the provision of night-time pictures and the processing electronics allow sharper pictures. Improved Crystal can take an image every five seconds. These are then relayed through Milstar satellites, placing huge demands on the data relay and image processing activity. However, the National Photo Interpretation Center can be scanning 10cm resolution images from the other side of the world within five minutes, relaying information back through to the National Command Authority or to field commanders within seconds. 

The first Improved Crystal was launched in 1990, followed by successors in February 1992, December 1995 and December 1996. Each Improved Crystal costs in excess of US$1 billion with a further US$400 million spent on launch costs. 

Technical capabilities allow Improved Crystal to resolve square or circular objects as small as 10cm but linear structures of 5-8cm can also be detected. With this resolution the visible optical spectrum can differentiate uniformed people from civilian personnel and determine the size and carrying capacity of small vehicles or two-wheeled motorised equipment. Infra-red imaging allows camouflage and vegetation to be identified as well as natural surface flora modified by the presence of groups of several people. 

Moreover, thermal imaging provides direct evidence of heat sources, identifying thermal plumes such as might be found near machinery or venting from concealed locations of human habitation. CCD image intensification provides a day or night coverage with a reduction in resolution for night-time images. Improved Crystal allows discrimination between subtle folds and hummocks in terrain ­ valuable for planning low-altitude UAV flight paths or for briefing covert ground units. 

Improved Crystal images of terrorist camps in Afghanistan reveal primitive methods employed to conceal training facilities and substantial equipment in tunnels and makeshift shacks. Images such as these are also utilised by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, generating digital point precision databases for precision bombing. 

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