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US Spy Satellites Used to Drop Photos in ‘Film Buckets’ from Space for Airplanes to Catch in Mid-Air


So, you think taking your film to the local shop to get developed is a pain? Try being an American spy satellite in the 1960s. Getting your film developed then meant dropping it in a special ‘film bucket’ capsule from space, which the US Air Force then had to catch in mid-air.

Strange as this seems, this is in fact how it worked, as you can see in the video above. Photographs captured by these so-called “Corona” satellites were shot on special 70 millimeter Kodak film using two panoramic cameras that evolved over the course of the program.

The satellites carried anywhere between 8,000 and 16,000 feet of film per camera (depending on the year and thickness of the film) and once one of these rolls was spent, it would be jettisoned in a GE reentry capsule nicknamed “film bucket.” This is where it gets interesting.

An image of the Pentagon, taken by one of these Corona satellites.
An image of the Pentagon, taken by one of these Corona satellites in 1967.

Once it survived the intense heat of re-entry, the heat shield would blast away around 60,000 feet and the ‘bucket’ would deploy a circular parachute to slow its descent. Then, if all went according to plan, this capsule would be snatched out of mid-air by a passing US Air Force plane using an “airborne claw.”

Here’s a gif of the moment the capsule is caught:


Of course, there were other, less dramatic ways to recover these capsules. They were also designed to be able to land at sea, where a salt plug would slowly dissolve and sink the film if it wasn’t recovered within two days. And after one was discovered by a Venezuelan farmer in ’64, the US Government stopped labeling them “Secret” and instead offered a reward in eight languages to anyone who returned it to the United States.

But none of that is quite as cool as snatching the thing out of the air.

(via Reddit)