The US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has become known for branding its spy satellite launches with strange and sometimes menacing imagery. But unlike the Office's infamous world-devouring octopus, the logo adorning NROL-61, which carried yet another classified payload into geosynchronous orbit on Thursday, is just flat-out bizarre.
Launched from Cape Canaveral at 1237 GMT on Thursday, NROL-61 sent up a classified NRO satellite innocuously designated USA-269. The launch featured the image of a wild-eyed lizard straddling a rocket Major Kong-style as it blasts off into space. The lizard mascot's name is "Spike," which also serves as the mission's code name.
But what's really interesting about the mission patch is that it shows Spike riding what seems to be the cargo-launching Ares V rocket, rather than the mission's actual launch vehicle, the Atlas V. The Ares was a cargo-carrying rocket designed for NASA's now-defunct Constellation program, which planned to replace the space shuttle before being scrapped in 2010.
That suggests that Spike's designer either made the logo as a tribute to the abandoned program, or that it was originally designed for Constellation and was simply re-appropriated for the NRO launch after that program was canceled.
Just like with the launch of NRO's Mentor-7 eavesdropping satellite in late June, amateur satellite-spotters wasted no time tracking down Spike. Paul Camilleri, a hobbyist in Australia, was able to spot both the NROL-61 payload and its separated upper-stage Centaur rocket booster in the night sky just an hour after launch.
It's also worth noting that the Atlas V 421 configuration deployed by NROL-61 has not previously been used in any of the surveillance agency's missions. While the purpose of NRO satellites can normally be puzzled out by carefully analyzing the size and details of its launch vehicle, this unusual configuration means that the satellite's exact function remains a mystery.