The scientific tourist #247 — Corona

Coming to you from the Air Force Space and Missile Museum at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Florida — it’s a model of a Corona satellite:

Discoverer / CORONA

Corona (originally known to the world via its cover name “Discoverer”) was the world’s first photo reconnaissance satellite program.  It started in 1958 as one of a number of think-tank studies, then was rushed forward after the 1960 downing of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union.  Coming at a particularly stressful part of the Cold War, this incident made the proposal for controversy-free overhead reconnaissance photography irresistible.

So starting in early 1959, test launches of Corona (advertised publicly as a technology development program called Discoverer) began.  The idea was to take images on film, then return the exposed film in a re-entry capsule (“bucket”) for processing and analysis.  A returned bucket was recovered by aircraft in mid-air, while dangling from its parachute.

Many of the early missions failed, while the program’s engineers and management learned how to build a reliable spacecraft.  The first successful return of images came on the Discoverer 13 mission in August of 1960 — this was also the first time any object had been successfully returned from orbit.  Launches continued under the Discoverer banner until 1962, at which point Corona continued for another decade as a completely secret program.

Meanwhile, the original single return bucket was replaced by a two-bucket system, resolution improved from 20 feet (6 meters) to 6 feet (2 meters), and the film base was made thinner (courtesy of the invention of Mylar) allowing for more film to be launched.  By the time the program wound down in 1972, Corona satellites had taken over 800,000 images on 2.1 million feet (640 km / 400 miles) of film.

The Corona program was declassified in 1995, so now all sorts of information is publicly available on the program — the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office even has devoted a section of its website to the program. 

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