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SOLRAD reserve at the National Air and Space Museum.jpg
SOLRAD reserve satellite (similar to SOLRAD 2)
Mission typeSolar X-Ray
Spacecraft properties
Launch mass18 kilograms (40 lb)
Start of mission
Launch dateNovember 30, 1960 19:50 (1960-11-30UTC19:50Z) UTC
RocketThor DM-21 Ablestar
Launch siteCape Canaveral LC17B
End of mission
DestroyedNovember 30, 1960 (1960-11-30)
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeIntended: Low Earth
← GRAB-1
GRAB 2 →

SOLRAD (SOLar RADiation) 2 was the public designation for a combination surveillance and solar X-Ray and ultraviolet scientific satellite, the second in the SOLRAD program developed by the United States Navy's Naval Research Laboratory. The SOLRAD scientific package aboard the satellite provided cover for the GRAB (Galactic Radiation and Background) electronic surveillance package, the mission of which was to map the Soviet Union's air defense radar network.

SOLRAD 2 was launched along with Transit 3A atop a Thor DM-21 Ablestar rocket on November 30, 1960, but both satellites failed to reach orbit when the booster flew off course and was destroyed, raining debris over Cuba, which prompted official protests from the Cuban government. As a result, future SOLRAD flights were programmed to avoid a Cuban flyover during launch.


Four men pose by a spherical satellite
SOLRAD 1 on top of Transit 2A with four of its creators.[1] From left: Martin J. Votaw, George G. Kronmiller, Alfred R. Conover, and Roy A. Harding.

In 1957 the Soviet Union began deploying the S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile, controlled by Fan Song fire control radars. This development made penetration of Soviet air space by American bombers more dangerous. The US Air Force began a program of cataloging the rough location and individual operating frequencies of these radars, using electronic reconnaissance aircraft flying off the borders of the Soviet Union. This program provided information on radars on the periphery of the Soviet Union, but information on the sites further inland was lacking. Some experiments were carried out using radio telescopes looking for serendipitous Soviet radar reflections off the Moon, but this proved an inadequate solution to the problem.[2]:362

In March 1958,[3]:4 while the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was heavily involved in Project Vanguard, the US Navy's effort to launch a satellite, NRL engineer Reid D. Mayo, determined that a Vanguard derivative could be used to map Soviet missile sites. Mayo had previously developed a system for submarines whereby they could evade anti-submarine aircraft by picking up their radar signals. Physically small and mechanically robust, it could be adapted to fit inside the small Vanguard frame.[2]:364

Mayo presented the idea to Howard Lorenzen, head of the NRL's countermeasures branch. Lorenzen promoted the idea within the Department of Defense, and six months later the concept was approved under the name "Tattletale".[2]:364 President Eisenhower approved full development of the program on August 24, 1959.[3]:4

After a news leak by The New York Times, Eisenhower cancelled the project. The project was restarted under the name "Walnut" (the satellite component given the name "DYNO".[1]:140, 151) after heightened security had been implemented, including greater oversight and restriction of access to "need-to-know" personnel.[4]:2 American space launches were not classified at the time,[5][6] and a co-flying cover mission that would share space with DYNO was desired to conceal DYNO's electronic surveillance mission from its intended targets.[7]:300

The study of the Sun's electromagnetic spectrum provided an ideal cover opportunity. The Navy had wanted to determine the role of solar flares in radio communications disruptions[7]:300 and the level of hazard to satellites and astronauts posed by ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.[8]:76 Such a study had not previously been possible as the Earth's atmosphere blocks the Sun's X-ray and ultraviolet output from ground observation. Moreover, solar output is unpredictable and fluctuates rapidly, making sub-orbital sounding rockets inadequate for the observation task. A satellite was required for long-term, continuous study of the complete solar spectrum.[9]:5–6, 63–65[10]

see caption
Wavelengths of light blocked by Earth's atmosphere

The NRL already had a purpose-built solar observatory in the form of Vanguard 3, which had been launched in 1959. Vanguard 3 had carried X-ray and ultraviolet detectors, though they had been completely saturated by the background radiation of the Van Allen belts.[9]:63 Development of the DYNO satellite from the Vanguard design was managed by NRL engineer Martin Votaw, leading a team of Project Vanguard engineers and scientists who had not migrated to NASA.[11] The dual-purpose satellite was renamed GRAB ("Galactic Radiation And Background"), sometimes referred to as GREB ("Galactic Radiation Experiment Background"), and referred to in its scientific capacity as SOLRAD ("SOLar RADiation").[1]:142, 149[7]:300

A dummy mass simulator SOLRAD was successfully launched on April 13, 1960, attached to a Transit 1B,[7]:301 - proving the dual satellite launch technique.[12] On May 5, 1960, just four days after the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 flight over the Soviet Union highlighted the vulnerability of aircraft-based surveillance, President Eisenhower approved the launch of an operational SOLRAD satellite.[13]:32 SOLRAD/GRAB 1 was launched into orbit on June 22, 1960, becoming both the world's first surveillance satellite and the first satellite to observe the Sun in X-ray and ultraviolet light.[7]


see caption
SOLRAD 1, its principal external features labeled.

SOLRAD 2 was roughly a duplicate of its predecessor, SOLRAD/GRAB 1,[14] spherical and 51 centimeters (20 in) in diameter,[8] slightly lighter than SOLRAD/GRAB 1 despite carrying the same scientific experiments (18 kilograms (40 lb) versus 19.05 kilograms (42 lb)),[4] and powered by six circular patches of solar cells.[4]:a1-4 The solar cells powered nine D cell batteries in series (12 volts total)[4]:10 providing 6 watts of power.[13]:32

The satellite's SOLRAD scientific package included two Lyman-alpha photometers (nitric oxide ion chambers) for the study of ultraviolet light in the 1,050–1,350 Å wavelength range and one X-ray photometer (an argon ion chamber) in the 2–8 Å wavelength range, all mounted around the equator of the satellite.[15] As with SOLRAD 1, permanent magnets were installed to deflect charged particles from the detector windows to address the saturation issue that had impacted the Vanguard 3 mission.[9]:64–65

The satellite's GRAB surveillance equipment was designed to detect Soviet air defense radars broadcasting on the S band (1,550–3,900 MHz),[13]:29, 32 over a circular area 6,500 kilometers (4,000 mi) in diameter beneath it.[1]:108 A receiver in the satellite was tuned to the approximate frequency of the radars, and its output was used to trigger a separate VHF transmitter in the spacecraft. As it traveled over the Soviet Union, the satellite would detect the pulses from the missile radars and immediately re-broadcast them to American ground stations within range, which would record the signals and send them to the NRL for analysis. Although GRAB's receiver was omnidirectional, by looking for the same signals on multiple passes and comparing that to the known location of the satellite, the rough location of the radars could be determined, along with their exact pulse repetition frequency.[3]:4–7[1]:108

see caption
"NSA Data Reduction", indicating the intelligence to be derived by processing the satellite downlink

Telemetry was sent via four whip-style 63.5-centimeter (25.0 in) long antennas mounted on SOLRAD's equator.[8]:76 Scientific telemetry was sent on 108 MHz,[8]:78 the International Geophysical Year standard frequency used by Vanguard.[16]:84, 185 Commands from the ground and electronic surveillance were collected via smaller antennas on 139 MHz.[3]:7 Data received on the ground was recorded on magnetic tape and couriered back to the NRL, where it was evaluated, duplicated, and forwarded to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Army Fort Meade, Maryland, and the Strategic Air Command at Offut Air Force Base Omaha, Nebraska, for analysis and processing.[17]

Like most early automatic spacecraft, SOLRAD 2, though spin stabilized,[7]:300 lacked active attitude control systems and thus scanned the whole sky without focusing on a particular source.[9]:13 So that scientists could properly interpret the source of the X-rays detected by SOLRAD 2, the spacecraft carried a vacuum photocell to determine when the Sun was striking its photometers and the angle at which sunlight hit them.[9]:64


SOLRAD 2's Thor DM-21 Ablestar on launch day

In November 1960, Votaw and his 14-man team drove the technical components for the SOLRAD 2 launch (loaded in the trunks of their own cars) from NRL headquarters in Washington D.C. to Cape Canaveral, flying having been ruled out due to the recent rash of skyjackings to Cuba. Upon arrival, the NRL team set up a temporary ground station in a hangar on the Cape's west side. SOLRAD 2's booster (first stage Thor No. 283 and second stage Able-Star 006) was erected nearly three miles away at Cape Canaveral's Pad LC17B.[18]

On launch day, November 30, 1960, minor glitches caused so many holds in the hours-long countdown that the NRL team commissioned a betting pool as to when the launch would occur.[18] Nevertheless, SOLRAD 2 did launch, along with Transit 3A (a separate satellite on the same rocket), at 19:50 UTC,[12] into a sunny sky. The Thor first stage shut down prematurely (it had been scheduled to burn for 163 seconds). Out of caution, despite the possibility that its payload could still be orbited, the now separated first and second stages of the booster were destroyed by the range safety officer.[18]

Like SOLRAD 1 (but no other American launches to date), SOLRAD 2's course to orbit took it over the Caribbean island of Cuba.[19] As a result of the rocket's destruction, fragments fell over Cuba's Oriente Province at the eastern end of the island, northwest of the US Navy's Guantanamo Bay base. The Cuban Army post at Holguin reported fragments falling along a 200 square miles (518 km2) swath and reported recovering "two complete sphere [sic], two apparatuses in the form of cones and various cylinders" with English inscriptions. One piece of recovered debris was described as a "sealed sphere of some 40 pounds". Given that Vanguard TV-3's satellite survived a booster explosion, it is possible that this was SOLRAD 2, recovered intact. The items were then delivered to army headquarters at Palma Soriano. According to a 1988 Chinese document, some of the recovered debris was sold to the People's Republic of China and used in aid of the design of the second stage of the CSS-4 intercontinental ballistic missile.[18]

The Cuban government protested the incident: Revolución, an official Cuban newspaper, accused the United States of "Yankee provocation," and government radio stations denounced what they described as efforts to destroy Castro's regime. Cuba lodged an official complaint with the United Nations. In response to these protests, American launches overflying Cuba were postponed, improvements were made to the range-safety system at Cape Canaveral,[18] and future SOLRAD flights were programmed to follow a more northerly course to orbit during launch that did not overfly Cuba.[20]


The SOLRAD/GRAB series flew three more times finishing with the SOLRAD 4B mission launched April 26, 1962. Of the five SOLRAD/GRAB missions, only SOLRAD/GRAB 1 and SOLRAD 3/GRAB 2 were successes, the others failing to reach orbit. SOLRADs 6, 7A, and 7B co-flew with GRAB's signals intelligence successor, Poppy, 1963–1965. The final five SOLRAD satellites (8, 9, 10, 11A, and 11B) were stand-alone scientific satellites, three of which were also given NASA Explorer program numbers. These flew from 1965–1976. In all, there were thirteen operational satellites given the SOLRAD designation.[7]:301–302 The GRAB program was declassified in 1998.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Review and Redaction Guide" (PDF). National Reconnaissance Office. 2008. Retrieved January 24, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c Bamford, James (2007). Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-307-42505-8.
  3. ^ a b c d McDonald, Robert A.; Moreno, Sharon K. "GRAB and POPPY: America's Early ELINT Satellites" (PDF). National Reconnaissance Office. Retrieved February 11, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d "History of the Poppy Satellite System" (PDF). National Reconnaissance Office. August 14, 2006. Retrieved February 28, 2010.
  5. ^ Day, Dwayne A.; Logsdon, John M.; Latell, Brian (1998). Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-1-56098-830-4.
  6. ^ "Space Science and Exploration". Collier's Encyclopedia. New York: Crowell-Collier Publishing Company. 1964. p. 356. OCLC 1032873498.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g American Astronautical Society (August 23, 2010). Space Exploration and Humanity: A Historical Encyclopedia [2 volumes]: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-85109-519-3.
  8. ^ a b c d "'Bonus' Payload Set for Transit 2A Orbit". Aviation Week and Space Technology. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. June 20, 1960. Archived from the original on January 9, 2019. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  9. ^ a b c d e Significant Achievements in Solar Physics 1958–1964. Washington D.C.: NASA. 1966. OCLC 860060668.
  10. ^ Committee on the Navy's Needs in Space for Providing Future Capabilities, Naval Studies Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, National Research Council of the National Academies (2005). "Appendix A: Department of the Navy History in Space". Navy's Needs in Space for Providing Future Capabilities. Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press. p. 157. doi:10.17226/11299. ISBN 978-0-309-18120-4. Archived from the original on January 7, 2019. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  11. ^ Parry, Daniel (October 2, 2011). "NRL Center for Space Technology Reaches Century Mark in Orbiting Spacecraft Launches". U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Archived from the original on January 7, 2019. Retrieved January 12, 2019.
  12. ^ a b McDowell, Jonathan. "Launch Log". Jonathon's Space Report. Archived from the original on December 1, 2008. Retrieved December 30, 2018.
  13. ^ a b c "NRO Lifts Veil On First Sigint Mission". Aviation Week and Space Technology. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. June 22, 1998. Retrieved March 6, 2019.
  14. ^ "Transit IIIA Planned for Nov. 29 launch". Aviation Week and Space Technology. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. November 7, 1960. Archived from the original on January 12, 2019. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  15. ^ "SOLRAD 1". NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  16. ^ Green, Constance and LOmask, Milton (1970). Vanguard – a History. Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. ISBN 978-1-97353-209-5. SP-4202. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved April 28, 2019.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ "G R A B, Galactic RAdiation and Background,World's First Reconnaissance Satellite". U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Archived from the original on July 26, 2007. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  18. ^ a b c d e "The Navy's Spy Missions in Space". U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Archived from the original on April 21, 2019. Retrieved April 21, 2019.
  19. ^ "Cubans Claim U.S. Rocket His Near 3rd Largest City". The Logan Daily News. Associated Press. December 1, 1960. p. 1. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  20. ^ a b LePage, Andrew. "Vintage Micro: The First ELINT Satellites". Drew Ex Machina. Archived from the original on January 12, 2019. Retrieved January 18, 2019.