As security incidents go, the case of the National Reconnaissance Office shoulder patch may lack the intrigue of a Russian bug planted in a State Department conference room, or the missing tapes of nuclear warhead secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
But for pure guilelessness, the NRO patch may be in a class by itself.
Amateur satellite observers who track the orbits of classified U.S. intelligence satellites say the embroidered patch, distributed to NRO employees to commemorate the Aug. 17 launch of a Titan IV, clearly revealed the rocket's secret payload: a radar-imaging Lacrosse spy satellite.
"This is most extraordinary," said retired CIA scientist Allen Thomson. "It appears that the NRO has given away significant information in advance of the current Titan IV mission in, of all things, a shoulder patch."
One need not be a spy to figure this out:
A Lacrosse radar-imaging satellite, unobstructed by clouds or nighttime, uses radar beams to image objects on Earth. The patch includes the slogan "We own the night."
With the latest launch, four Lacrosse satellites are believed to have been deployed, with Lacrosse 1 taken out of orbit in 1997 after nine years of service. The patch shows four satellites circling the globe, including one that is black.
A distinctive feature of the school bus-sized Lacrosse is the wire mesh that covers its antennas. The patch depicts an owl, the launch mascot, wearing what appears to be wire mesh glasses.
But the most revealing detail is the approximate inclinations--the angle at which an orbit crosses the equator--of the embroidered satellites.
Before the launch, Ted Molczan, a leading satellite tracker from Canada, guessed the Titan IV would be carrying a Lacrosse, given the size of the shroud covering the payload. But he didn't know whether the satellite would be launched into an orbit with a 57-degree inclination, the same orbit as Lacrosse 1 and Lacrosse 3, or an orbit with a 68-degree inclination, the same as Lacrosse 2.
After he saw the patch on Florida Today's Web site, his quandary was resolved: The patch clearly showed the new satellite at the 68-degree inclination. So Molczan put out his prediction on the Internet before the launch: "If this interpretation [of the patch] is correct, then I believe that the available clues now point more strongly to a 68 degree inclination."
And wouldn't you know: Titan IV lifted off and put its payload into orbit--with a 68-degree inclination. Molczan and his fellow satellite trackers have been eyeing it ever since, racing through the night sky at thousands of miles an hour, more than 300 miles above Earth. And now they're certain: It's a Lacrosse.
"If they're overhead, they're clearly visible to the naked eye," Molczan said. "Lacrosse is about as bright as the stars that make up the Big Dipper."
NRO spokesman Art Haubold seemed faintly annoyed by Molczan's predictions. "I'm not going to get into whether or not I felt [the patch] went too far," Haubold said. "As I say, there are explanations for all parts of the patch. People are always speculating about what our classified missions are, and this launch is no different. The payload is classified, and obviously we don't discuss it."