PAN satellite finishes its climb to geostationary orbit
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: September 22, 2009
The mystery communications spacecraft launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral earlier this month -- and pictured in this story -- has arrived in a geostationary orbit that views the Middle East, hobbyist satellite trackers report.
Lockheed Martin built the satellite, simply called PAN, using its successful A2100 design and commercial know-how for an undisclosed U.S. government customer. The actual purpose of the spacecraft and the user have not been revealed.
"The program, designated PAN, was awarded to Lockheed Martin in October 2006," the press release reads. "It consists of a novel and robust turnkey commercial-based satellite, ground and launch system solution developed to meet the government's future needs."
"We are very proud of the innovative total system solution we are deploying for our customer," said Tessa Lloyd, Lockheed Martin's PAN program director. "The rapid development of this spacecraft and ground system is testimony to a strong government and industry partnership and we are extremely proud of our teams across the country."
The release goes on to say: "The PAN satellite is based on Lockheed Martin's configure-to-order A2100 spacecraft series and leverages mature commercial space technologies and unique Lockheed Martin processes that enabled delivery of a high-quality, low-cost solution with reduced cycle times for the government customer."
The Atlas 5 delivered PAN into an elliptical transfer orbit during the September 8 ascent. The craft's own engine was used to circularize the altitude to nearly 22,300 miles where it can match Earth's rotation and appear fixed above a certain longitude above the equator.
A group of respected sky-watchers around the world who track satellites had been awaiting the PAN mission to peel back some of the mystery surrounding the unusual launch. Greg Roberts, a retired astronomer living in Cape Town, South Africa, first heard a beacon from the satellite as it was flying into orbit. He and Ian Roberts, also of South Africa, and Peter Wakelin, a retired meteorologist in the U.K., have since visually observed PAN high in the sky and determined its orbital slot over Africa.
"It is interesting to note that PAN is near the longitude of AMC 14, a commercial communications satellite, that was stranded in a useless orbit early last year, as the result of a launch mishap. It was quickly purchased from the insurer by the U.S. government, and over a period of many months, it was maneuvered into a highly inclined orbit, synchronous orbit," said Ted Molczan, a noted member of the trackers.
"If PAN remains near AMC 14, then I will suspect them to be owned by the same agency of the U.S. government, which I continue to suspect is a civilian intelligence agency, perhaps the CIA.
"The two satellites may provide different services. I continue to suspect that PAN is a narrow-band UFO-MUOS gap-filler."
Molczan has hypothesized that PAN was a quick-build satellite that would bridge 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.
The beacon signal heard during launch was one of the frequencies used by the UHF Follow-On craft. The trackers say the only U.S. government geostationary spacecraft known to use that frequency are the UFO satellites.
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