Galactic Radiation and Background

This is a display model of a GRAB satellite at the National Cryptologic Museum.

Galactic Radiation and Background (GRAB) was the covername for a series of five Project Dyno ELINT intelligence satellites, the first surveillance satellites operated by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) shortly after the Cold War U-2 incident of 1960. Though only two of the five satellites made it into orbit, they returned a wealth of information on Soviet air defense radar capabilities.


The Soviet launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, made clear to the President Eisenhower administration that the high ground of Earth's orbit provided an attractive vantage for surveillance missions. Moreover, unlike the high-flying Lockheed U-2 spyplanes, they couldn't be shot down with systems then available.

In 1958, Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) engineer Reid D. Mayo considered adapting the Vanguard satellite (also an NRL project) for surveillance of Soviet anti-aircraft radars. After preliminary range calculations showed that such a probe could intercept radar signals from as high up at 600 miles (1000 kilometers), Mayo presented his idea to Howard Lorenzen, chief of NRL's countermeasures branch. Lorenzen pushed the proposal within the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, and full development of the project was approved by President Eisenhower on August 24, 1959.[1]

The satellites carried two sets of instruments: an unclassified experiment (called SOLRAD) and a then-classified payload to collect electronic intelligence (ELINT) (originally called Tattletale). The program is also known by the later codeword Canes.[2]

The GRAB program cover was developed after the public disclosure of Project TATTLETALE in the New York Times. TATTLETALE satellites were supposed to obtain radar ELINT information in the S-band using a crystal video receiver derived from the German World War II ATHOS system from a 500 nm circular orbit, and transpond them pulse-by-pulse to ground stations. The ELINT capabilities expanded from one RF band for the first two launch attempts to multiple bands from launch three on.[2] The primary mission was to map the Soviet air defense radars.[3]

Operational historyEdit

Of five attempted launches, two missions were successful.[2]

The first GRAB satellite was launched June 22, 1960, on the same rocket as Transit 2A, an early naval navigation satellite. GRAB 1 had the distinction of being the first successful U.S. intelligence satellite, returning ELINT intelligence data from July 5, 1960, until September 22, 1960, totaling 22 data collection passes of 40 min each over the Soviet Union, China and their allies.[4] The SOLRAD experiment remained operational for ten months [4] (though usable data was obtained only for five months) and it returned the first real-time X-ray and ultraviolet observations of the sun.[5]

During the second launch attempt, the Thor booster shut down 12 seconds early, and the flight was subsequently terminated by Range safety. As fragments fell on Cuba, subsequent launches from Cape Canaveral flew a dogleg trajectory to reach 70° inclination.[6]

The other successful GRAB mission, GRAB 2 was launched June 29, 1961, atop the same Thor-Able-Star launch vehicle as Injun, a geophysical science satellite from the University of Iowa, and Transit 4A. GRAB 2 began transmission of intelligence to the ground on July 15, 1962, and functioned in orbit for fourteen months.[1] The amount of data received was so large that automated analytic tools had to be developed, tools that found application in subsequent surveillance programs.[4] GRAB-2's SOLRAD experiment (SOLRAD 3) also contributed substantially to solar X-ray astronomy.[7]

Three more GRAB satellites were produced, the first two failing to make orbit in 1962. The last GRAB flight was cancelled.[8]


The GRAB program formally ended with GRAB 2's last transmission on August 1962.[1] After the establishment of the National Reconnaissance Office in 1962 the GRAB program was succeeded by the POPPY program, which lasted from its funding authorization in July 1962 [9] until its termination on 30 September 1977.[10] The existence of the program was declassified by the NRL in 1998.[1]

Table of launchesEdit

The GRAB 1 sitting atop Transit 2A during launch preparations.


  1. ^ a b c d "GRAB AND POPPY: America's Early ELINT Satellites" (PDF). Retrieved February 4, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c "History of the Poppy Satellite System" (PDF). National Reconnaissance Office. 2006-08-14. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
  3. ^ "The Honorable Peter Teets: National Space Symposium Corporate Dinner Address". National Reconnaissance Office. 2003-04-08. Archived from the original on 2010-05-27. Retrieved 2010-06-04.
  4. ^ a b c LePage, Andrew. "Vintage Micro: The First ELINT Satellites". Retrieved January 18, 2019.
  5. ^ Significant Achievements in Solar Physics 1958–1964. Washington D.C.: NASA. 1966. pp. 64–65. OCLC 860060668.
  6. ^ {{cite web url= title=History of the Poppy Satellite System - June 2012 release |date=2012-06-06 |publisher=National Reconnaissance Office |accessdate=2012-06-24 |archive-url= |archive-date=2013-10-02 |url-status=dead}}
  7. ^ Significant Achievements in Solar Physics 1958–1964. Washington D.C.: NASA. 1966. pp. 67–68. OCLC 860060668.
  8. ^ American Astronautical Society (23 August 2010). Space Exploration and Humanity: A Historical Encyclopedia [2 volumes]: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. pp. 300–303. ISBN 978-1-85109-519-3.
  9. ^ "National Reconnaissance Office Review and Redaction Guide" (PDF). Retrieved January 24, 2019.
  10. ^ "History of the Poppy Satellite System" (PDF). Retrieved February 11, 2019.

External linksEdit