An Atlas V rocket was successfully launched from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base Thursday night at 11:15 p.m. PST. While a successful rocket launch is one thing, the fact the Atlas V was carrying a classified payload, and the involvement of the National Reconnaissance Office, has led many to speculate that the rocket was carrying spy satellites.
The launch itself was no secret; in fact, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence live tweeted the event. Vandenberg Air Force Base and the 30th Space Wing, which manages launches and testing for the Department of Defense, provided status updates of the launch on Facebook.
According to the ODNI, the NRO was founded in 1961 and "the agency in charge of designing, building, launching and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites." Per the office's tweets, the Atlas V rocket was carrying a classified payload as well as miniature satellites called CubeSats.
Forbes points out that other launches, including those by NASA and, most recently, SpaceX, are also well-covered on social media, but the fact the spy agency's launch contains a classified payload, probably carrying spy satellites, has many concerned. Following the Edward Snowden leaks, which include the numerous ways the National Security Agency has spied on individuals, privacy is a national concern and any perceived act of spying merits some scrutiny.
It also doesn't help that the NRO launch includes a mission patch with an octopus astride the globe and the slogan "Nothing is beyond our reach," says Forbes. As the author, Kashmir Hill, says, it's almost as if the NRO and the ODNI do not understand the public's sensitivity to any invasion of privacy or it is their dubious attempt at a joke. For many, it could be considered an act of trolling, with the NRO playing into the public perception of U.S. spy agencies. The presumed spy satellites could gather communications and data from around the world.
Previous NRO launches, NROL, came with slogans and patches that were less threatening and less suggestive than NROL-39's mission patch. The NROL-36 mission patch is a tribute to America, with a charging bison and the slogan "Freedom's shield and hope," while the NROL-38 featured a three-headed dragon with the slogan "Non morieris bello," Latin roughly translated as "We are not going to war."
NRO satellites have been observed by other satellites, and by amateur satellite trackers, but their mission remains classified. As for the CubeSats, the NRO has provided a list of what was aboard the Atlas V rocket, including projects funded by the National Science Foundation and developed by universities. The video of the Atlas V rocket launch, courtesy of the 30th Space Wing, can be viewed below.