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Cold War spy satellite program declassified

A bit of Cold War space history has been thawed.
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A bit of Cold War space history has been thawed.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), National Security Agency (NSA) and Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have declassified the fact that a series of satellites was orbited from 1962 through 1971, designated POPPY.

POPPY’s mission was to collect radar emissions from Soviet naval vessels – an activity called electronic intelligence, or ELINT for short.

In total, seven POPPY satellites were lofted into space from 1962 to 1971: Dec. 13, 1962, June 15, 1963, Jan. 11, 1964, March 9, 1965, May 31, 1967, Sept. 30, 1969, and Dec. 14, 1971.

The POPPY Program operated from December 1962 through August 1977.

Originally developed by the NRL, POPPY became a multi-agency system when the NRO was established in 1962, shortly before the satellite’s first launch.

POPPY’s average useful life on orbit was 34 months and was the successor to the nation’s first ELINT satellite, known as “GRAB” for Galactic Radiation and Background.

The POPPY system was designed to detect land based radar emitters and support ocean surveillance. In its seven launches, “POPPY made tremendous contributions to the nation’s security during an especially perilous era,” according to a press statement associated with the September 12 declassification of the satellite system.

The primary organizations that supported the POPPY effort included NRO (launch support); NSA (received, analyzed, and reported findings derived from the intercepted radar signals from POPPY); and the NRL (designed, developed, and operated POPPY satellites).

The Naval Security Group — with support from Air Force Security Service and Army Security Agency — coordinated field operations and maintained and operated POPPY ground sites.

In carrying out its spying duties, the POPPY program operated from December 1962 through August 1977.

The NSA has announced it will unveil in the future a POPPY model for permanent display in their National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland.