Monday, September 12, 2016

Snowden releases Top Secret spy satellite PAN details ...

Documents obtained by the online publication ‘The Intercept‘ from NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden have lifted the veil on one of America’s most enigmatic satellite missions of recent years, roaming high above Earth to intercept the communications of commercial satellites otherwise not accessible in the NSA’s information-gathering efforts.

Only known by the name of PAN, the satellite was sent into orbit on September 8, 2009 atop an Atlas V rocket under contract with an undisclosed U.S. Government Agency. No agency claimed ownership of the satellite – a highly unusual move as even the National Reconnaissance Office, operator of U.S. spy satellites, publicly acknowledges the launches of its intelligence-gathering birds.
Although no government agency would step forward, spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin was happy to announce the company had built the spacecraft based on the A2100 commercial satellite platform and even released a photo of it in its factory. Normally, photos of U.S. spy assets are kept under wraps until declassification decades after the fact, adding more mystery to PAN’s case.

According to Lockheed Martin, PAN was ordered by its hush-hush operator in 2006 and construction and testing on the satellite finished within three years, suggesting some urgency in getting the satellite into orbit.

The mission’s elusive three-letter designation apparently stood for ‘Palladium at Night.’ In addition to being the name of a rare silver-white metal, Palladium can also stand for a safeguard, “especially one viewed as a guarantee of the integrity of social institutions.” After its successful arrival in orbit, PAN changed its enigmatic name for the numeric designation USA-207 in America’s fleet of classified satellites.

Whenever a classified U.S. intelligence satellite sets sail for its top secret destination in space, a worldwide network of satellite trackers mobilizes to scan the sky for the newly launched bird, also employing radio equipment to help characterize its activity to reveal clues on the craft’s tasks.

In case of PAN, radio observations performed while the satellite was still riding atop its Atlas V booster revealed it was transmitting on a beacon frequency previously employed by Ultra High Frequency Follow-On satellites providing secure communications to mobile military users. However, the lone image of the satellite released by Lockheed showed it was not carrying any large helix antennas required for UHF communications, adding to the mystery of PAN’s actual identity.
PAN parked in close proximity to PakSat-1, operated by the government of Pakistan since 2002.

Eventually, satellite spotters found USA-207 in a position over Africa, having entered its high-altitude perch in Geostationary Orbit where the craft’s speed matches that of Earth’s rotation so it can remain in the same position relative to the ground.

The Snowden document is the first to tie the PAN satellite to a series of satellites codenamed NEMESIS – a designation first uncovered in a leaked U.S. government budget breakdown. Part of the High-Altitude Signals Intelligence branch, NEMESIS received a $500-million budget for Fiscal Year 2011 for what is now known to be the second satellite in the constellation, referred to as CLIO.

While no explanation for the acronym CLIO was offered, its mission was quickly connected to PAN given many parallels between the two including the Lockheed satellite platform and similar levels of secrecy surrounding its September 2014 liftoff from Florida’s Space Coast.

According to the MHS document, the inauguration of the NEMESIS satellites was expected to “open up new opportunities for discovery and will enhance collection efforts for the intelligence community into areas not previously explored.

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