Titan 4B launched Thursday, August 17 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Air Force wasn’t very forthcoming about what the rocket was carrying. Citing national security, the payload was only identified as the responsibility of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
So it was with some surprise that Ted Molczan first saw an embroidered patch released by the NRO to commemorate the launch. To him, the patch not only clearly identified what the rocket was carrying, but where the payload would be placed in orbit.
The National Reconnaissance Office released
the above emblem to boost employee morale.
Molczan, who tracks classified satellites as a hobby, posted his suspicions to the Internet after seeing the patch on a Website.
"Assuming that this will not be a launch of a new type of payload," wrote Molczan, "then the available clues point to a Lacrosse payload."
NRO spokesman Art Haubold, in an telephone interview with SPACE.com, was unable to comment on Molczan’s findings.
The Lacrosse satellites, also known by the code name Onyx, are believed to give the U.S. military the ability to monitor problem spots around the world, as well as help accurately target weapons in almost real time.
Molczan has been following the NRO’s launches since the first Lacrosse satellite was allegedly launched aboard the space shuttle in 1988.
"I helped organize the network of observers who began tracking Lacrosse 1 within hours of deployment, when it was still very near the shuttle," Molczan said in an e-mail interview with SPACE.com. "Hobbyists tracked the object throughout its life."
Molczan and his colleagues also documented the launch and orbit of two other Lacrosse satellites and had their suspicions that the August 17, 2000, launch of the Titan would be adding a fourth. But it wasn’t until Molczan saw the patch that he was certain.
Sewn into the patch is a pair of eyes – presumably belonging to the launch mascot, an owl – surrounded by mesh frames. Also depicted are four boomerang-shaped objects, three white and one black, orbiting Earth. The slogan "We Own the Night" wraps around the bottom of the gold and black badge.
The owl’s frames may be a reference to the Lacrosse satellite’s characteristic antenna that is said to be covered by wire mesh. To Molczan though, the telltale sign were the four "boomerangs."
"I had overlooked the four bird-like symbols flying along the orbits in the patch," says Molczan of his first view of the patch. When I focused on those, the symbolism was so obvious."
Molczan noticed that the "birds" appeared to follow two orbital inclinations – the angle an object crosses Earth’s equator – which correspond to the tracking data of the previous three Lacrosse satellites.
"I believe that the two quasi 60-[degree] inclination orbits are symbolic of the 57-[degree] and 68-[degree] Lacrosse orbital planes," he wrote to the discussion list.
Amateur satellite observers believe this photograph, from the National Reconnaissance Office's website, to be a Lacrosse satellite being prepared for launch.
Furthermore, Molczan found the patch predicted the orbit of a fourth Lacrosse.
"Consider that both planes have two spacecraft, which is consistent with four Lacrosse launches, counting [the August 17] launch."
Taking the entire patch into consideration, Molczan posted his description of what he thought the design depicted.
"Consider that the 57-[degree] orbit, depicted by the shallower of the two orbits, shows its leading satellite in black, with a white outline and the one trailing behind it as solid white. I suspect that the leading symbol denotes Lacrosse 1, which was the first 57-[degree] Lacrosse, and that it is in black because it is no longer in orbit. The trailing symbol denotes Lacrosse 3, the second 57-[degree] Lacrosse, shown as solid white because it remains in orbit.
"Finally, consider the 68-[degree] orbit, depicted by the steeper of the two orbits.
The leading symbol should be Lacrosse 2, the first 68-[degree] Lacrosse, depicted as solid white because it remains in orbit. The trailing symbol depicts Lacrosse 4, which [at the time was] about to be launched, shown as solid white since it would be in orbit."
With that information, Molczan posted that he believed that the Titan would launch a payload to a 68-degree orbit and that, that object would be a Lacrosse.
Confirmation of his prediction came several hours after launch, when NORAD released the orbital elements of the Titan IV 2nd stage.
Why the NRO would make the telling design available to the public, Molczan does not know.
"Until a few years ago, NRO's existence was a secret. Since the end of the cold war, NRO has opened up a bit; however, the existence and public availability of this patch was a bit of a surprise."
NRO spokesperson Haubold confirmed that the patch was released in connection with the August 17, 2000, launch. The patch was only distributed to employees and contractors as "a moral builder to those who worked on the launch."
Even without the patch, Molczan points out, identifying the NRO payload was only a matter of time.
"I should point out that we would have located the object in orbit almost as quickly even without the patch. I was prepared to search both the 57-[degree] and 68-[degree] orbits, which would not have been difficult."
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