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The Creepy, Kitschy and Geeky Patches of US Spy Satellite Launches

Since the Gemini program, NASA has allowed astronauts to design patches for the missions they fly on. There are also patches for each mission of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which launches spy satellites. Those patches aren’t as well publicized, and they are definitely weirder than NASA’s mission patches.

Today NRO launches about four to six satellites per year, including the NROL-35 mission, with the patch seen above, slated to fly this Thursday. The public still doesn't know exactly what each satellite is doing, but for a couple decades now the agency has advertised the date and time of its launches—probably because, as Pearlman points out, “it’s hard to hide a rocket.” In response, a subculture of fervent hobbyists has become committed to watching the skies at night, piecing together the satellites’ orbits. At some point, those hobbyists discovered that—just like NASA—NRO also issues mission patches. The agency didn’t seem to care if the patches were leaked, and eventually it even started publishing depictions of the patches along with launch announcements. Even so, for years knowledge of the patches largely remained confined to enthusiasts, especially in the days prior to widespread social media.

That changed somewhat in 2000, when a fan figured out a spy satellite’s mission from clues on the patch. Since then, the symbols on the patches have become more outlandish and obscure -even frightening at times. We don’t know if there’s a method to the madness, or whether the NRO is just having fun with the designs, but you can read the story and see a gallery of the patches at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: National Reconnaissance Office)

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