The Super Fun Kids' Graphic Novel Sale

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores


Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


The “Other” Night Sky

With this week's shoot-down of USA 193, the failed ultra-secret-billion-dollar spacecraft, spy satellites have been very much on people's minds. I thought we'd take a few moments to look at the symbols and patches from some of the more than 100 secret "moons" in earth orbit.

Let's start with a look at the launch patch from USA 193 itself:

Not much to look at on this one. NROL-21 stands for "National Reconnaissance Office Launch 21." The NRO is like a secret twin to NASA. It's the US' "other" space agency. The agency is about as old as NASA, but its existence was secret until 1992. USA 193 was by no means the 21st NRO launch, it's just the 21st since they started using the newer launch names in the 1990s. SLC-2W refers to the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base that they launched the rocket from.

Other patches from classified spacecraft are, in my opinion, a lot more interesting.
Recent NRO launches use constellations to signify different launches.

Here's the payload patch from a recent naval surveillance satellite (NROL-30):

And some others that I'll leave to you to research and decode:

÷ ÷ ÷

Trevor Paglen is an expert on clandestine military installations. He leads expeditions to the secret bases of the American west and is the author, with AC Thompson, of Torture Taxi.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the... Used Hardcover $12.00

Trevor Paglen is the author of I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World

2 Responses to "The “Other” Night Sky"

    Venkman February 22nd, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Wha..? Not only had I not heard about the USA 193 shoot-down (please don't step on the rock I live under), but I'd never even heard of the NRO!

    NASA's secret twin??? I'm fascinated!

    Woody Vogl February 28th, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Not to worry, Venkman. Even those of us who once worked in those agencies never knew everything--sometimes we were successfully kept in the dark about things that were directly related to our duties. I never realized these projects had patches, but as a military collector I'm glad someone who had access is finally able to publish some of them (hopefully without revealing anything of continuing sensitivity). My thanks to for publicizing the book and the author's other work.

Post a comment:

Get Your Gravatar

  1. Please note:
  2. All comments require moderation by staff.
  3. Comments submitted on weekends might take until Monday to appear.
PowellsBooks.Blog uses Gravatar to allow you to personalize the icon that appears beside your name when you post. If you don't have one already, get your Gravatar today!
  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at