This is probably a bad idea.
The problem is that under adverse conditions, the color might not be capable of being distinguished. With the unhappy result of five different symbols that you cannot tell apart. Such condition include:
- Emergency lighting is often monochrome instead of white. Chemiluminescence glow sticks commonly emit green light, radioluminescence tritium lights are also green, low-pressure sodium lamps give yellow light. And light designed to preserve night vision under emergency conditions is red. Any of these can make two different colors become indistinguishable. This was featured in the movie The Abyss. The diver at an absurd distance below sea level has his lamp implode. The only light left is his glow stick. Unfortunately the nuclear warhead he has to disarm uses color coded wires that all look alike in green light.
- A person might suffer from impaired color vision. This is generally red-green color blindness, occasionally blue-yellow color blindness, and rarely total color blindness. There are ways to partially compensate for this. Red and Green are commonly used as opposites for people with normal color vision. For the most common color blindness (red-green) this is the worst combo, a better choice is Red and Blue or Yellow and Blue.
- Alien species might have vision which can only see in the infrared band or something exotic like that. Not only can they not see color, they might not be able to distinguish the symbol from the cloth or other surface it is applied to.
Rob Davidoff suggested that such symbols be "double-keyed". In the US the road sign symbolizing "Stop" is red of color and has an octogon shape. Words and numbers can be used, but part of the advantage of using symbols is they are not language specific.
With respect to color, the Semotic Standard symbols might have a problem.
|Circle with dot in center|
|Mercury||Crescent over circle over cross|
|Venus||Circle over cross|
|Cross over circle. More popular in non-geocentric contexts|
|Cross inside circle. Globe with equator and a meridian.|
|Mars||Angled arrow over circle|
|Ceres||Cresent over cross|
|Jupiter||Crescent on horizontal bar of cross|
|Saturn||Cross above crescent|
|Uranus||Vertical arrow over circle with dot|
|"H" from Herschel.|
Two crescents on horizontal bar of cross, over circle
|Neptune||Crescent over cross|
|"L+V" for Le Verrier.|
|Pluto||"P+L" for Pluto and Percival Lowell|
|Circle over crescent over cross|
Moskowitz Symbols were invented by Denis Moskowitz. The vast majority of smaller celestial bodies in the solar system do not have official symbols. Mr. Moskowitz decided to remedy that.
A gentleman by the name of Jeff Love figures that in astrology the various planets are symbols for aspects of a person's psychology. He analyzed the planetary symbols into common sub-symbols.
|Circle||Interacting with the world. A conscious as opposed to a subconscious process.|
|Crescent||Receiving/Emitting information or energy|
|Arrow||Movement, creativity, aggressiveness, response|
|Cross||Balance or fixation. Abscence means unfixed.|
These sub-symbols are combined to form the planetary/psychological symbols
|Sol||Dot in circle|
|Mercury||Vertical upward crescent over circle over cross, attached to vertical|
|Venus||Circle over cross, attached to vertical|
|Earth||Cross in circle (dot in center?)|
|Cross over circle, attached to vertical|
|Mars||Arrow on circle|
|Ceres||Horizontal crescent over cross, attached to vertical.|
|Jupiter||Horizontal crescent on cross, attached to horizontal|
|Saturn||Cross over horizontal crescent, attached to vertical|
|Uranus||Arrow on circle, with dot|
|Neptune||Vertical upward crescent (with arrows) over cross, attached to vertical|
|Pluto||Circle over vertical upward crescent over cross, attached to vertical|
For measuring equitorial longitude (right ascension) around the solar system plane of the ecliptic, a rough system can be made by dividing longitude into 30 degree segments named after the 12 signs of the zodiac.
For relative angular measure there are colorful archaic terms originating from astrology.
|0°||Conjunction||In same sign|
|18°||Vigintile||360° / 20|
|30°||Semi-sextile||360° / 12|
One sign apart
|32.727°||Undecile||360° / 11|
|36°||Decile||360° / 10|
|40°||Novile||360° / 9|
|360° / 8|
|51.429°||Septile||360° / 7|
|60°||Sextile||360° / 6|
Two signs apart
|360° / 5|
|360° / 4|
Three signs apart
|102.857°||Biseptile||360° / 3.5|
360° / (7/2)
Septile × 2
|108°||Tridecile||360° / 3.333|
360° / (10/3)
Decile × 3
|120°||Trine||360° / 3|
Four signs apart
|360° / 2.647|
90° + 45°
Square + Semisquare
|144°||Biquintile||360° / 2.5|
|360° / 2.4|
Five signs apart
|154.286°||Triseptile||360° / 2.333|
360° / (7/3)
Septile × 3
|165°||Quindecile||360° / 2.182|
Opposition - 15°
Undecile × 5
|180°||Opposition||360° / 2|
Six signs apart
The International Code of Signals. These are a set of international code signs and words that do not depend upon the two people communicating to share a language in common. They include multicolored flags, semaphore, blinking lights, Morse code, and radio. For instance, AJ means "I have had a serious nuclear accident and you should approach with caution" and EO means "I am unable to locate vessel/aircraft in distress because of poor visibility". Those signals can be understood even if the sender only speaks Mandarin Chinese and the receiver only speaks Czechoslovakian. Refer to the manual found here.
Of course flags don't work very well in space, but perhaps subsitutes could be adopted. Patterns of colored lights or something.
|Flag||ICS Meaning as Single Flag||Meaning when used with Numeric Complements|
|"I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed."||Azimuth or bearing|
|"I am taking in or discharging or carrying dangerous goods." (Originally used by the Royal Navy specifically for military explosives.)|
|"Affirmative."||Course in degrees magnetic|
|"Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty."||Date||E|
|"I am altering my course to starboard."|
|"I am disabled; communicate with me."|
|"I require a pilot." By fishing vessels near fishing grounds: "I am hauling nets."||Longitude (The first 2 or 3 digits denote degrees; the last 2 denote minutes.)|
|"I have a pilot on board."|
|"I am altering my course to port."|
|"I am on fire and have dangerous cargo on board: keep well clear of me." or "I am leaking dangerous cargo."|
|"I wish to communicate with you."||"I wish to communicate with you by...": 1) Morse signaling by hand-flags or arms; 2) Loud hailer (megaphone); 3) Morse signaling lamp; 4) Sound signals.|
|In harbour: "The ship is quarantined." At sea: "You should stop your vessel instantly."||Latitude (The first 2 digits denote degrees; the last 2 denote minutes.)|
|"My vessel is stopped and making no way through the water."|
|"Man overboard." (often attached to the man overboard pole on boats). With a sinister hoist, the semaphore flag.|
|The Blue Peter. In harbour: All persons should report on board as the vessel is about to proceed to sea. At sea: It may be used by fishing vessels to mean: "My nets have come fast upon an obstruction."|
|"My vessel is 'healthy' and I request free pratique."|
|(No ICS meaning as a single flag)||Distance (range) in nautical miles.|
|"I am operating astern propulsion."||Speed (velocity) in knots|
|"Keep clear of me; I am engaged in pair trawling."||Local time. (The first 2 digits denote hours; the last 2 denote minutes.)|
|"You are running into danger."|
|"I require assistance."||Speed in kilometres per hour.|
|"I require medical assistance."|
|"Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals."|
|"I am dragging my anchor."|
|"I require a tug." By fishing vessels near fishing grounds: "I am shooting nets."||Time (UTC). (The first 2 digits denote hours; the last 2 denote minutes.)|
|This and following used as numbers to complement other signals.|
These are real-world symbols used on cargo ships. But [a] they are fascinating and [b] it should be easy enough for science fiction writers to adapt them for cargo starships in their novels adding a bit of fascinating background that will make their readers think "Oh, that is so cool! I like this novel."
Ron Cobb while working on the movie Alien in 1978, developed a set of graphic icons to be used in the interior of spacecraft. It was called the Semotic Standard for "all commercial trans-stellar and heavy element transport craft". They are surprisingly modern looking for graphics created almost forty years ago. They inspired similar icons in Duncan Jones's movie Moon.
The icons used symbolic colors:
- RED : viable, sound, alive, alertness
- WHITE/GREY : life supporting condition: pressure, temperature
- BLACK : vacuum, death, hazard
- YELLOW : harmful, active process: molecular (heat), atomic, chemical
- BLUE : lowered thermal condition
- GREEN : non-human biological substance, process (not used in standard)
Spacer's Runic is from Jovian Chronicles Spacer's Guide (which has other hard-science space travel details that are relevant to our interests).
In the world of Jovian Chronicles, Spacer's Runic is an ideogram based written language used as an emergency form of communication when speaking is not possible. It can come in handy if a spacecraft's radio (or power plant) is non-functional. It can also provide disturbing messages about what lurks inside the decades-old derelict you just stumbled over. If it seems to trying to tell you about large eggs, face-huggers, and Xenomorphs you are probably better off just turning around and getting the heck out of there.
The straight lined symbols can be drawn with all sorts of improvised tools and surfaces, and space suits carry vacuum rated marking pens specifically to write them. Morse code is considered to also be a part of Spacer's Runic.
Spacer's Runic is considered to be universal among spacers, understandable regardless of what language the spacers speak. This is much like the real-world International Code of Signals, which can be understood even if the sender only speaks Mandarin Chinese and the receiver only speaks Czechoslovakian.
A single straight line (the "orientation mark") is used to indicate the left side of the sentences, since otherwise the orientation of the message is ambiguous in the microgravity environment. The line should include at least two sentence rows, but most spacers draw the line to include all of them. If there is only one sentence, the orientation mark should extend above and below the sentence.
The runes are read left to right,top to bottom.
Each rune is drawn within an imaginary 3 × 3 grid of evenly sized squares. They are drawn with dots and straight lines. Dots are drawn in the center of a grid square or at an intersection. Lines are drawn from the side of one grid square to another, either from the intersection or the midpoint.
The reader should cut some slack to the writer, since the writer is probably trying to draw the runes under extreme stress during an emergency.
Sentences start at the orientation mark, with each rune added at the right edge of the sentence. A sentence should be on one row, or the "continue on next line" rune allows a sentence to be on several rows. It is not allowed to have more than one sentence on a row.
Runes should be spaced so there is from 3 to 6 grid square between them, it is allowed to space the digits in a number closer than 3.
There are thousands of runes, only a representative sample is shown here.
The symbol on the left is the Rod of Asclepius. It is the symbol of the medical profession and healthcare.
The symbol on the right is the Caduceus of Hermes. It is not the symbol of the medical profession and healthcare. It is actually the symbol of commerce and negotiation. If you grew up anywhere besides the United States you would know that.
It is not entirely clear how the mix-up happened, but apparently there was a role played by the Medical Department of the United States Army in 1902. The caduceus was used as emblem of peace borne by an envoy or ambassador with a message or peace or demand for surrender since about 168 BCE. A symbol of free passage, telling both sides in a conflict you better not kill me or your commanding officer will have your head on a platter. A symbol also carried by medics.
So since in the US civil war the caduceus was worn by hospital stewards to indicate their non-combatant status, and the caduceus looks like the Rod of Asclepius if you don't look too closely, it is easy for a person with no attention to detail to get the two symbols mixed up. Apparently that person was either Capt. Frederick P. Reynolds or Col. John R. van Hoff.
Rod of Asclepius
The Rod of Asclepius has one snake and never ever has wings. It is carried by the Greek god Asclepius, god of medical healing. The other aspects of healing are represented by Asclepius' five daughters. Asclepius in invoked in the orginal version of the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians.
The snake symbolizes the rejuvenation of healing, because it periodically sheds its skin. It also symbolizes the duality of the medical profession, since they deal in life and death. Also the duality of healing drugs and poisons, since all drugs are poisons and all poisons are drugs. Only the size of the dose determines which it is.
Some say the symbol arose from the standard medical treatment for Guinea worm disease, which you are free to do a web search for but I warn you it is quite disturbing.
Caduceus of Hermes
The Caduceus has two snakes and often wings.
The earliest known appearance of the Caduceus is on an Early Bronze Age libation cup depicting the Sumerian god Ningishzida, but it is best known for being carried by the Greek god Hermes and later by Hermes Trismegistus. The word comes from Greek κηρύκειον kērū́keion "herald's wand".
Originally it symbolized the various attributes of Hermes, but nowadays it usually symbolizes commerce and negotiation. The two snakes represent balanced exchange and reciprocity, which are always good things to have in those realms. It also symbolizes the printing press since Hermes was big on writing and eloquence.
Simplified it becomes the astrological symbol of the planet Mercury (Roman name for Hermes)
Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are satirical fantasy for thinking people. While they are comedy, many of the jokes require a bit of scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. Which explains why I find them so entertaining. My personal favorites are The Truth (the invention of the newspaper), Going Postal (post office vs the Victorian internet), and Raising Steam (the invention of the steam locomotive).
Anyway like many fantasy novels the Discworld has a race of dwarfs. They spend most of their time in cramped mines in very close quarters with other dwarfs. Things can get tense.
Much like spacers on a prolonged deep-space mission in a tiny hab module, actually. Or asteroid miners.
As a sort of social network to reduce tensions Discworld dwarves use something called "mine signs", a species of graffiti. I am wondering of the idea can be adapted to a rocketpunk universe. Imagine Banksy using Spacers Runic
Once people are suited up, it does become hard to tell who is who. In Destination Moon, there were four spacemen, and each had a uniquely colored suit. Kind of like colored tooth-brushes. But this won't work if you have more than a few spacemen, er, spacepeople. The person's name stenciled in large letter across the front and back is a possibility.
In Piers Anthony's The Kirlian Quest, he notes that this problem has occurred before: knights in armor are similarly anonymous. The solution is coat of arms and heraldry. The knights wear their coats of arms on their shields, tabards, and horse barding, to identify themselves.
When a proposed heraldic "device" (coat of arms) is submitted to the college of heralds, it is compared with all existing devices. The new device must have at least one major and one minor point of visual difference from those already registered. Otherwise it would be too easy to confuse the two devices in the heat of battle. Mistaking a foe for a friend could be fatal. It is also a good idea if the device can be recognized at a distance.
As an amusing side note, a heraldic device has a "blazon". This is a verbal description of the heraldic device done in heraldic terminology. If you give a herald a blazon, they can reproduce the original device even if they had never seen it before. Just remember that the "blazon" is the verbal description and "to emblazon" means to draw, paint or otherwise make a graphic representation of the device (called an "emblazonment").
In Larry Niven's Protector, the Belters of the asteroid belt spend most of their lives inside their space suit. They have a tendency to paint their suits in extravagant colors. One of the characters had Salvador Dali's Madonna of Port Lligat on the front of their suit. In an interesting psychological quirk, Belters also tend to be nudists when in a pressurized environment.
And if you find any illustrations of the game Warhammer 40,000, you will quickly see that the Space Marines are big fans of heraldry. Even though you can generally idenifty the bad Marines by the tentacles, weeping open sores, and other Marks of Chaos. Otherwise, if the opponents look like skeletons they are Necrons; if they are tall, skinny, and distainful they are Eldar; if they are green with tusks they are Orks; and if they look like Giger's Alien xenomorph on bad LSD and are eating everything they are Tyranids. They are all enemies, so the basic rule is if it does not look like a Space Marine, shoot it with your bolter.
In a science fictional rocketpunk universe, they will generally be for members of the astromilitary, the civilian military, a trader with a megacorporation trading company, or a member of an independent free trader ship. There might be an additional symbol showing skill ratings, e.g., a person might have the badge of a crewperson of the free trader ship Solar Queen along with the cogwheel badge of an engineer.
And of course the police will have badges, whether they are for city, state, county, planet, federation, starport, space station, or whatever.
A common cliché in science fiction is the tell-tale sign of a spacer who is down on their luck. They will be wearing a worn out ship coverall zipper-suit, all the fabric faded except for the dark spot where the embroidered textile ship's badge used to be.
For cinematic purposes they will probably look like a flashy symbol, but in reality they will probably be more like an RFID chip or other electronic tag. Cinematic badges are usually worn on the sholder, on the left breast, or both. Sometimes there will also be a colored ribbon going down the leg and/or arm, but I digress.
Some symbols are used for identification, but are only displayed covertly. This is generally used to identify yourself to a single person as a member in good standing with an undercover organization. A spy, a member of the resistance, a super-secret law enforcement agency, a member of a crime family, that sort of thing.
A remotely related concept is an "uncounterfeitable" method of identification, used by law enforcement. Examples include the celebrated "Lens" of E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series (which is not covert since the blasted thing flashes like xmas tree lights, but is uncounterfeitable), and the Big Dipper/Orion vanishing tattoo of the Lucky Starr series (which is covert but possibly counterfeitable).
In an episode whose name escapes me, Dureena is a member of a team infiltrating a space colony. She wants to contact the local branch of the Thieves Guild. Which is a problem because she doesn't know any of them. So she tells two other team members to pretend like they are having a fist-fight.
As the fight progresses, attracting the attention of the crowd, Durenna moves into a dark corner and briefly places a small glowing Thieves Guide badge on a pillar. Afterwards, the other team members (with black eyes) asks her what the heck is going on?
Dureena tells them that when a commotion occurs, member of the Thieves Guild are trained to look away from the commotion and see what is happening in the rest of the room. Which means only members of the Guild will see Dureena placing the symbol, everybody else will be focused on the fist-fight. As Dureena predicts the Guild saw her, and later contacts her. Problem solved.
In the movie The Last Jedi, the character Rose Tico has a ring much like Berger's Croix de Lorraine ring, with the same function.
The main difference is instead of the secret badge being hidden by a hinged gemstone, it is instead behind a leaf iris door (as a side note, her sister Paige Tico enters the bomb-bay room through a petal iris door).
Rose's ring is an antique from the days of the first Star Wars trilogy, where Imperial senators would use it as a secret badge for the rebellion. The emblem is the Alliance crest, which is a star bird (i.e., a phoenix rising from the ashes). The days of the Alliance are long gone, but unfortunately Nazis just never go out of style. Resistance is an eternal task.
Of course, a master prop creator named Todd Blatt is busy making a replica of the ring.
After the war they became general guardians. Their numbers declined until they were a small group of old Mimbari. But they suddenly became important when the second Shadow War started.
Initially their role was one of covert intelligence operatives. Which meant they needed a secret badge. This took the form of a green gemstone with a stylized Mimbari alien on the left. Later when Humans were recruited into the Anla'Shok the badge was altered to include a stylized human on the right.
Once the Anla'Shok took over a more military role, the secret badge became the insignia worn openly on their uniforms.
In the movie Logan's Run, the citizens living in the domed cities lead a hedonistic existence. Unfortunately when they turn 30 years old they are put to death, but the process is ritualized so much that most citizens undergo it like so many sheep.
Citizens who have a problem with this become secret rebels, seeking escape from euthanasia. Their secret badge is an Ankh ☥. This is the traditional symbol of life, but since a society where everybody is under 30 has no traditions the hidden meaning of the badge is not commonly known. Security through obscurity in other words.
The badge will unlock a secret exit hidden in the depths of the city to allow escape into "Sanctuary." Actually there is a boxy complication, but I digress.
In the TV series The Game of Thrones, Arya Stark is given one of the Iron Coins of the Faceless Men. It is used as a recognition token by that secretive guild of assassins.
And don't forget the spacecraft, it might have nose-art. noted that typical US Navy ships have a squadron logo someplace, while cruisers tend to have the logo of their Group because in the US Navy cruisers are in Groups rather than Squadrons.
Christopher Weuve said that he is a big fan of DESRON-21's logo. As he puts it, just change "Solomons" to something else suitable (Orion? Arcturus?) and you're ready to go.
In a discussion about future military spacecraft paint schemes, Barry Messina says:
An experiment in inventing the spacecraft colors for the science fictional Strategic Space Command.
A Roundel is circular disc used as a symbol, often as a military insignia on a warcraft. They were all the rage on military aircraft from World War 1 to World War 2. I'm sure you've seen them on Sopwith Camel biplanes.
However, I have a pet idea that such insignia will be useful on combat spacecraft. This isn't a particularly good idea, but it does allow putting the romantic era of wood-and-fabric biplanes into your space combat science fiction novel with some plausible deniability (Curse you, Red Baron!). Also, hobbyists who paint miniature spaceships will find that a roundel is much easier to paint than a full fledged flag.
Here is my reasoning:
Putting a Automatic Identification System on your warship just gives enemy radio-homing missiles some radio to home in on. There is no reason to make it any easier for the enemy to kill you. Assuming that the future still has some silly international norms governing recognition markings, this means some sort of nationality identifying symbol will have to be painted on the combat spacecraft.
Now, back in World War 1, wet naval vessels and armored fighting vehicles could be emblazoned with the national flag, or a simplification. Since as a general rule boats and tanks always stayed horizontal during normal operation, the flag symbol would always be displayed in the proper orientation.
This system suddenly didn't work with the advent of combat aircraft. Anti-aircraft batteries on the ground would be looking up at the belly of an unidentified aircraft, which could be oriented in any of 360 different degrees relative to the battery. This hampers the identification of a flag symbol, possibly leading to the escape of an enemy or the destruction of a friendly aircraft. The same applies to a given aircraft trying to identify another aircraft currently doing an Immelmann turn. Aircraft are not always horizontal during normal operations.
The solution is to make a flag symbol that does not depend upon being viewed perfectly horizontally. It must be identifiable at any angle. So it will have to have radial symmetry. Something like a multi-pointed star will do. Even better is something that looks like a bullseye, with different colored concentric rings.
In other words: a roundel.
I warned you it wasn't a particularly good idea.
Historically, in the real world, roundels grew out of cockades. This is a colored pleated ribbon bent into a circle. Yes, they look like a bullseye with different colored concentric rings. From the 15th century various European monarchies had their soldiers wear cockades to identify their nationality. During the Napoleonic wars, the armies of France used the imperial French cockade or the larger cockade of St. George pinned on the front of their shakos.
So when France developed aircraft shortly before World War 1, they used the French national cockade. A blue disc, surrounded by a thick white ring, which was surrounded by a thick red ring (colors of the French flag).
England used the Union Jack Flag on their aircraft. Until they found out the hard way that to British anti-aircraft batteries, the Union Jack was too easily confused with the German Iron Cross. So England adopted the roundel, using a red disc, surrounded by a thick white ring, which was surrounded by a thick blue ring. During World War 2, they found the roundel was sometimes hard to make out if the body of the aircraft was of similar hue to the outer blue ring. So they added a third ring as the new outermost: a thick chrome yellow ring for constrast.
The United States initially used a red disc surrounded by a huge five-pointed white star, within a blue disc. Sort of like the British roundel, with the white ring bent into a pentagram. This proved to be too close to the Iron Cross, so it was briefly changed to a white disc with a blue ring surrouned by a red ring. But they went back to the pentagram a year later. During World War 2 the red disc was removed because it looked too much like the red disc of the Japanese roundel, leaving just a white star in a blue disc.
Dave O'Malley can tell you all you want to know about Canadian roundels.
Roundels were used on the wings and fuselage. In addition, vertical, horizontal or slanted stripes in the same colours as the main insignia were painted on the fin or rudder. These were called a Fin flash or rudder stripes. Spacecraft that operate in atmospheres (or which were inspired by the V-2 rocket) have fins, some with rudders. Exo-atmospheric spacecraft, not so much.
The author's father, Major Winchell D. Chung, (ret.) used to be the navigator/bombardier officer on a SAC B-52 aircraft. For his crew he painted insignia on their helmets. Years later when I saw the first Star Wars movie I wondered why the X-wing pilot's helmets looked oddly familiar.
I always wondered about the dragon emblem. Thinking back, I vaguely remembered it was based on a water-slide decal. After a bit of an internet search, I figured what I was remembering was the IMPKO dragon decal from 1960. It appears my father modified it to have four feet instead of just two.
Judging by the way RocketCat is eyeballing the dragon, I figure there will be a new emblem added to his space suit.