Seriously, Don’t Worry About the Pentagon’s Giant Planet-Sucking Octopus

But the military’s latest spy satellite launch DOES have its secrets

Seriously, Don’t Worry About the Pentagon’s Giant Planet-Sucking Octopus Seriously, Don’t Worry About the Pentagon’s Giant Planet-Sucking Octopus

Uncategorized December 6, 2013 0

Late Thursday night, the United Launch Alliance—a consortium of Lockheed Martin and Boeing—launched a whopping 13 satellites into orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket.... Seriously, Don’t Worry About the Pentagon’s Giant Planet-Sucking Octopus

Late Thursday night, the United Launch Alliance—a consortium of Lockheed Martin and Boeing—launched a whopping 13 satellites into orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket. One of the satellites, given what we know, is very likely a highly classified spy sat operated by the military’s National Reconnaissance Office.

The logo, of course, includes a freaky yellow-orange octopus wrapping its tentacles around the planet above the words “NOTHING IS BEYOND OUR REACH.” The logo is also festooned with the name of the launch mission: NROL-39.

True, the design is a little strange. It’s certainly bad timing after months of revelations involving rampant NSA spying. But according to one space expert, the logo is most likely an ironic joke done years ago by the mission team.

“The patches are just a military thing that come from a combination of camaraderie, pride in your job and shared experience,” emails Brian Weeden, an analyst with the Secure World Foundation and a former captain at the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center.

NROL-39 patch logo.

Yes, it looks foreboding.

“But it’s honestly not much more than a way to express yourself,” he adds. “Unfortunately, when they are seen by people outside of those groups and stripped of their shared meaning and significance, they often come across in a very different (and negative) light.”

One the other hand, one satellite launched as part of NROL-39 is rumored to be a secretive advanced optical radar known as FIA Radar 3—owing to a similar launch configuration to previous NRO spy satellite launches. If it is FIA Radar 3, this means the satellite would have been likely salvaged from the NRO’s Future Imagery Architecture spy satellite program, canceled in 2005 after billions of dollars in overruns.

The extent of FIA Radar 3's capabilities is at best a guess. But optical radar imagers are typically used to see through clouds and bad weather, at night, and are particularly useful for monitoring excavations related to Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. But that’s a different kind of spying from the NSA.

“This particular satellite has nothing to do with any of the NSA stuff or illegal spying on citizens. If it’s a radar imagery satellite as many suspect, it’s in line with 50-plus years of satellite-based reconnaissance done by the U.S., Soviets and many other nations,” Weeden writes.

“That’s reconnaissance on other nations, not on citizens.”

Of the 13 satellites launched aboard the rocket on Thursday, five are built by universities and will conduct various science and imaging experiments (a full list is available at satellite watch Website Zarya). Seven others are military satellites and include the ALICE orbiter which uses carbon nanotubes to conduct lightweight maneuvering experiments.

We also have a pretty good idea what two other military satellites launched on Thursday can do. Named SMDC-ONE 2.2 (Able) and SMDC-ONE 2.3 (Baker), acronyms for Space and Missile Defense Command-Operational Nanosatellite Effect, they are designed to link communication equipment carried by soldiers to unattended ground sensors.

If ground sensors—perhaps spread along a remote mountain path in Afghanistan—detects the movement of Taliban fighters, the Army wants soldiers on the other side of the mountain to be able to pick up the signal in a form of beyond-the-line-of-sight communication.

This also means the SMDC-ONE satellites have to be individually cheap—a few hundred thousand dollars per unit—in addition to there being lots of them to form an orbiting constellation. Thursday’s launch includes the fourth and fifth SMDC-ONE satellites launched to date.

Nonetheless, regarding the octopus, the NRO has a history of “burying little hints and secrets in their patch designs related to the actual mission,” Weeden explains.

Often they just reflect inside jokes among the program team. But others—although it sounds conspiratorial—have depicted ships for naval reconnaissance satellites or highly-elliptical orbits symbolizing relay satellites and winged dragons for high-orbit signals intelligence programs.

Now with that in mind, look at the octopus a bit closer. As the evil cephalopod nestles over North America, only a single sucking tentacle is actually touching the planet. The others flail about in outer space.

What is that tentacle touching, you might ask? It’s Afghanistan.

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