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Clues about mystery payload emerge soon after launch

Posted: September 8, 2009

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A mysterious spacecraft whose mission is cloaked in secrecy left Cape Canaveral atop the hard-to-miss roar of its Atlas 5 rocket and then revealed a major clue about itself while cruising above a satellite-tracking hobbyist a short time later.

Credit: Pat Corkery/ULA

The 19-story booster blasted off at 5:35 p.m. EDT, the first moment of the day's launch opportunity that punctuated a trouble-free countdown.

The rocket's nose cone, adorned with Lockheed Martin's corporate logo, shrouded the payload as it climbed through the atmosphere and out of sight.

The company acknowledged that it had built the communications satellite -- dubbed "PAN" -- under a commercial arrangement with the government. Yet few other details were released, such as what agency was behind the project or what it would do in orbit.

"Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the PAN mission, which includes a commercial-based satellite and launch system solution for the U.S. government," a Lockheed Martin statement released to Spaceflight Now said.

Within 18 minutes, the Centaur upper stage turned off its main engine and settled into an initial parking orbit where it would coast away from the planet for 98 minutes.

A group of respected sky-watchers around the world who track satellites with remarkable precision and communicate their findings amongst each other online eagerly awaited Tuesday's launch and a chance to test their pre-flight guesses against reality.

The leading theory suggested PAN was a quick-build satellite that would serve as a communications gap-filler between the aging constellation of Ultra-High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) spacecraft and the sophisticated next-generation Mobile User Objective System that's still being developed.

Some 34 minutes after the Atlas launched from Florida, observer Greg Roberts, a retired astronomer living in Cape Town, South Africa, detected "a strong beacon signal" being emitted from the PAN satellite as it crossed his sky.

"The time, general location of the signal in the sky, and its Doppler shift were consistent with the expected parking orbit," said Ted Molczan, a noted member of the trackers.

For 14 minutes, Roberts heard the passing satellite transmitting a frequency unique to the UFO spacecraft. He had to cut the session short due to bad weather, but the hobbyists immediately knew their speculation was proving well founded.

"We know of no other U.S. satellites in geostationary orbit that use that frequency, so Greg's observation tends to support the UFO-MUOS gap-filler hypothesis," Molczan said.

Roberts, like others in the small international group of hobbyists who find and watch satellites in secret orbits, does his observing using telescopic still and video cameras, and radio receivers.

The east-bound trajectory sent the Atlas into an elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbit, though the power provided by the rocket coupled with the payload's relatively slim weight, estimated by the observers to be approximately 7,700 pounds, enabled a higher perigee, or low point, than other such launches.

A second firing of the Centaur propelled PAN into its targeted deployment orbit with an apogee of 22,230 miles and a perigee of 4,550 miles. The payload's release an hour and 59 minutes after liftoff successfully completed the ascent.

"The secrecy surrounding PAN may be a clue to the identity of its sponsoring agency. It appears not to belong to the DoD, given that its UFO and MUOS are open programs, as was the U.S. Navy's 'UHF Hosted Payload' gap-filler solution, which it briefly considered in 2008," Molczan said.

"The most likely remaining possibility is that a civilian intelligence agency, perhaps the CIA, decided much earlier, about 2005-06, that it could not risk a coverage gap, and obtained approval to rapidly procure and launch a satellite compatible with the UFO satellites," Molczan added.

An article in a Lockheed Martin newsletter, entitled "A small and persistent team turns a great idea into an important new U.S. program" and published in the spring of 2007, said its Special Programs had started the PAN mission, also known as the P360 project.

"The team's innovative turnkey commercial-based satellite, ground and launch system solution established the foundation for a new government architecture. The team functions across time zones from Space Systems Company in Sunnyvale, Calif., to Commercial Space in Newtown, Pa., Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Services in San Jose, Calif., Integral Systems in Lanham, Md., as well as Lockheed Martin divisions abroad. United Launch Alliance in Denver, Colo., rounds out the contributors with the Atlas 5 launch vehicle," the article continued.

"Following several years of concept development, market analysis, and finally proposal submittal, the contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin in October 2006. The team has had successful system and preliminary design reviews and is on schedule for launch in 30 months from contract start."

The observers plan to continue monitoring the moves of the satellite in the coming weeks as it maneuvers into a circular geostationary orbit. Its destination could further bolster their guess.

"If it occupies one of the established UFO orbital slots, and transmits on the established UFO UHF-band frequencies, that will fully confirm the present hypothesis. That will take at least several weeks," Molczan said.

A later newsletter from December 2007 quoted the PAN program manager as saying: "Our PAN P360 team just celebrated our first anniversary since contract award. As program manager, I am very proud of the extraordinary effort and excellent team that has been leading this endeavor. We have successfully hit every milestone on a 30-month firm-fixed-price program that will change the future of how government programs will be contracted and run.

"This opportunity is a great challenge to build a government satellite that uses the A2100 spacecraft bus and commercial off-the-shelf components and processes. There are numerous future Lockheed Martin opportunities that hinge on the success of this program."

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