Last year, the National Reconnaissance Office sparked a media frenzy when it released a spy satellite mission patch depicting an Earth-eating octopus. But, that's not even close to the weirdest logos bestowed upon U.S. spy satellites—and space enthusiasts believe they're codes for the secret mission payloads.
While NASA mission patches tend to be rather low key, NRO logos look like they could have been lifted from heavy metal albums or the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. Among the cast of characters: a three-headed dragon, a burning phoenix, a buxom purple-haired sorceress (top) and a satanic figure (below) with a rocket engine shoved up its ass.
Writing in Smithsonian magazine, Rachel Nuwer tells the history of these bizarre, kitschy patches and why there may be a method to their madness.
Although the missions of spy satellites are kept secret, the NRO publicly announces their launch dates (since it's hard to hide a rocket launch). The agency didn't seem to mind when the mission patches were leaked, and eventually it released images of the logos. Still, for years—especially before the era of social media—only a handful of space enthusiasts knew about the patches. But that changed in 2000, with the launch of a payload called NROL-11:
The mission patch depicted what appeared to be owl eyes peering down at the Earth, where four arrow-shaped vectors, two per orbit, made their way across Africa. Three of the vectors were white, and one was dark. Based solely on studying the design, civilian satellite watcher Ted Molczan hypothesized that the patch showed a failed satellite (the dark vector), and that the newly launched satellite would take its place.
Sure enough, after the launch a new satellite appeared just where Molczan predicted….it seemed that NROL-11's patch had inadvertently revealed classified details about its payload's whereabouts, and when the story broke, the patches suddenly appeared on the public's radar. Although the patches were under more scrutiny than ever before, the agency didn't flinch. Rather than classify them or discontinue the tradition, NRO ramped up its game. Subsequent designs became even more ridiculous, featuring patriotic gorillas or 16th-century ships, for example.
In the years since, space enthusiasts continue to debate whether the designers of the mission patches are just messing with our heads or there are still hidden clues if you look hard enough. Consider, for instance, the patch for NROL-33 (above), which was launched this past May. Nuwer reports that some enthusiasts speculate that the five beams shooting out of the winged warrior's hand represent five pre-existing satellites in the Quasar communications system, since a Quasar satellite was the presumed payload. The wolves, facing in different directions, could indicate three new positions in this system. And the setting sun symbolizes that this will be the final Quasar launch.
To see a gallery of other patches, and their interpretations, read the rest of Nuwer's article at the website of Smithsonian magazine.