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Why the US Launched a Spy Rocket With an Earth-Sucking Octopus On It

The intelligence community to choose the slogan "Nothing is beyond our reach" for its latest mission. Subtle, guys.
The Atlas V with NROL-39 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base Thursday.

What with all the flack government spooks are getting for the U.S.’s overreaching dragnet surveillance, one would think now is not the best time to be advertising the immense scope of America’s spying operations. And yet the intelligence community just launched a spy rocket into space donning a symbol of an Earth-eating octopus atop the slogan, "Nothing is beyond our reach."

The Atlas V rocket was launched late Thursday night on the NROL-39 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency generally overshadowed by its accomplice the NSA, only it collects troves of information about the world via spy satellites in outer space.


Given the spy rocket’s trajectory, chances are it’s a radar imaging satellite and will be joining the agency’s current radar reconnaissance fleet, though we can't know for sure since the mission’s primary payload is classified. Which is why it's somewhat odd that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who oversees the NSA and NRO, basically live-tweeted the launch process with photos and videos to boot.

Ready for launch? An Atlas 5 will blast off at just past 11PM, PST carrying an classified NRO payload (also cubesats)

— Office of the DNI (@ODNIgov) December 5, 2013

Stories about the agency’s strange malevolent octopus logo quickly rippled through the blogosphere. But aside from its ill-timed Big Brother implications, there's nothing unusual about the mission emblem.

Obscure, cryptic insignia badges are commonly used in covert Psyops and Black Ops as a way to subtly describe a mission's goal and identify its crew. The patches are generally enigmatic and dark, sometimes comical or historical—a sort of inside code to represent the military's "black world" of people and missions that don't officially exist.

The NRO's globe-sucking octopus looks slightly less evil when compared to a badge with the crazy-eyed dragon clutching Earth in its claws with American flags for wings, or even darker, the symbol for the US Navy's stealth drone program: the Grim Reaper.

The logo for the US Navy stealth drone program, as seen on an official biography of rear admiral Tim Heely, the Navy’s drone Program Executive Officer

“The NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature,” said NRO spokesperson Karen Furgerson in a statement issued to Forbes. “Emblematically, enemies of the United States can be reached no matter where they choose to hide.“

And the ominous slogan? According to Furgerson, "Nothing is beyond our reach’ defines this mission and the value it brings to our nation and the warfighters it supports, who serve valiantly all over the globe, protecting our nation."

Occult emblems from covert ops can be like clues into secret missions, each one a different puzzle to solve. The name of the NRO’s "Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities" mission couldn't be more vague, but its patch has an alien head on it. Was it an operation to seek out, or even communicate with extraterrestrial life? But then what’s up with the Latin phrase on it that translates to “Let them hate so long as they fear?"

Actual mission patches from black operations programs within the United States military (via

Another sinister NRO insignia shows three vicious snakes wrapped around the globe, and underneath, a Latin phrase that translates to "Never before, never again." Whaa? (For more gems, check out Trevor Paglen's book on secret mission badges, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me.)

So what can we glean from NROL-39’s Earth-sucking octopus? Well, aside from the mission's classified primary payload, the Atlas V also carried the Government Experimental Multi-Satellite payload, or GEMSat. In other words, a dozen CubeSats hitched a ride on the rocket. CubeSats are mini-satellites that are relatively cheap to build and launch, and once in orbit use solar radiation to generate thrust so they can fly through space for longer periods of time than rocket-propulsion satellites. NASA for one is pretty excited about the little nanosatellites, which it hopes will expand deep space exploration, and which don't tend to lend themselves to creepy symbols.

Via United Launch Alliance

More secret stuff:

Spaced Out: The Satellite Hunter

The Pleasure of Looking Down on Earth

The US Government Has Finally Cut Back on National Secrets