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NEWS | June 22, 2020

GRAB I, First Operational Intelligence Satellite

By Daniel Parry, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Corporate Communications

Shrouded in secrecy for nearly 40 years, the Galactic Radiation and Background, electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellite, was declassified by the Navy in 1998. Originally named Tattletale, the program became operationally referred to as GRAB after public disclosure of the project.
 
Having successfully developed and installed radar detectors on submarine periscopes, NRL scientist Reid Mayo of the Countermeasures Branch promoted the idea that the success of his submarine periscope antenna could function equally well in orbit aboard a Vanguard-like satellite.
 
Mayo presented his idea for ELINT collection to Howard Lorenzen, chief of NRL’s Countermeasures Branch and to the front rank of the nation’s electronic warfare program. Lorenzen agreed it could work, and in 1958 championed the idea within the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community.
 
Shortly after a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the Soviet Union in June 1960, GRAB I launched atop a Navy Transit IIA satellite. From September 1960, to April 1961, GRAB I clandestinely obtained information on Soviet air defense radar that otherwise could not be observed from U.S. military aircraft.
 
Situated 500 miles above Earth, safe from surface-to-air missiles, the satellite’s circular orbit passed through energy pulses from Soviet radar. GRAB received varying bandwidths of each radar pulse, and transmitted a corresponding signal to collection huts at ground sites within its field of view.
 
Operators recorded downlinked data on magnetic tape and couriered it to NRL for evaluation. After evaluation, the tapes were duplicated and forwarded to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, and the Strategic Air Command at Offut Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska for analysis and processing.
 
A little over one year after the first GRAB mission, NRL launched the second successful GRAB satellite, June 29, 1961. It collected signals on July 15 and operated for 14 months. Like the first GRAB mission, it produced a large volume of radar intercept data. By October 1961, NSA had developed an automatic system to improve the time-consuming processing of ELINT data it received from the GRAB satellites.
 
NRL continued research and development in coordination with other elements of the U.S. space and ELINT programs, to include the Navy Space Surveillance (NavSpaSur) System for detecting and tracking satellites.
 
The GRAB project provided proof-of-concept for satellite-collected electronic intelligence. This was accomplished by demonstrating that a platform in outer space could collect as much as all other sea-, air-, and land-based reconnaissance platforms operating within the satellite's field of view at a fraction of their cost and at no risk to personnel.
 
Secretly created in 1961, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was established for overseeing all satellite and overflight reconnaissance projects. The newly formed agency in 1962 absorbed NRL’s ELINT satellite program.  
 
Building on the successes of GRAB, NRL designed, developed, and operated a new generation of ELINT satellites. Codenamed POPPY, the program was designed to detect land based radar emitters and support ocean surveillance. The POPPY program was a component of NRO’s signals intelligences (SIGINT) satellite program ‘C’ and operated from December 1962 through August 1977.
 
GRAB continues to inspire space science research for the Navy and the next generations of spacecraft at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
 
“With roots stretching back to the end of World War II, the Naval Research Laboratory has a rich history of space science and engineering achievements," said Chris Dwyer, superintendent, NRL Space Systems Development Division. "GRAB is but one example of a long list of firsts.”


About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL is located in Washington, D.C. with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; Monterey, California, and employs approximately 3,000 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.
 
For more information, contact NRL Corporate Communications at (202) 309-7259 or nrlpao@nrl.navy.mil.

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