Friday, March 11, 2016

Imaging a "UFO" (Ultra High Frequency Follow-On)

UFO F2 on 3 March 2016
(click image to enlarge)

The image above is my first image of a UFO...

(* cue X-Files tune *)

No need to call in Mulder, however. The object in the image is a geosynchronous satellite, UFO F2 (1993-056A).

The truth is out there

The acronym 'UFO' in this case does not stand for the classic Unidentified Flying Object. It stands for Ultra High Frequency (UHF) Follow-On, the name of a class of US Navy communication satellites.

The UFO satellite constellation consists of 11 satellites (not all of them operational) in geosynchronous orbit, launched between 1993 and 2003. It serves fleet-wide communication needs for the US Navy (including its submarines, but also Marine units on land). The system is currently being replaced by the newer MUOS constellation (see a previous post) and will gradually be phased out.

UFO satellite constellation on 9 March 2016
(click image to enlarge)

The first launch in the series, the launch of UFO F1 on 25 March 1993 with an Atlas 1 from Cape Canaveral, resulted in a partial failure to reach the intended geosynchronous orbit due to the failure of one of the rocket engines. The second UFO launch, UFO F2, the one imaged above, was the first truely successful launch of this satellite class.

USA 236 on 28 February 2016
(click image to enlarge)

I imaged more geosynchronous objects the past week, taking advantage of clear moonless evenings. The image above shows a star field in Orion in the evening of 28 February 2016, with USA 236 (SDS 3 F7, 2012-033A), an SDS data communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit. These satellites relay data from other US military satellites, optical and radar reconnaissance satellites in Low Earth Orbits such as the KH-11 'Keyhole'/CRYSTAL, Lacrosse (ONYX) and FIA (TOPAZ), to the US.

PAN on 28 February 2016
(click image to enlarge)

I also did my periodic revisit of the enigmatic SIGINT satellite PAN (2009-047A) as well (see image above). PAN is still stable at 47.7 E (see my long-term analysis here), near Yahsat 1B. The image above shows it near that satellite and a number of other commercial communications satellites in an image taken on 28 February 2016.

Mercury 1 r on 3 March 2016
(click image to enlarge)

On Feb 28 and March 3, I recovered Mercury 1 r (1994-054B), the upper stage from the launch of the Mercury 1 SIGINT satellite. We had lost this object for a while, it had not been seen for 153 days when I recovered it. The image above shows it in Hydra on 3 March 2016.

USA 186 on 5 March 2016
(click image to enlarge)

As spring is approaching, the visibility of satellites in Low Earth Orbit is gradually coming back for northern hemisphere observers.  This means we can take over from our lone southern hemisphere observer, Greg. The image above shows the KH-11 'Keyhole'/CRYSTAL optical reconnaissance satellite USA 186 (2005-042A) imaged on 5 March 2016.

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