Friday 25 September 2015

MUOS 4 at its 172 W check-out location

MiTEx 1 on 16 September 2015
(click image to enlarge)

On September 16, I was using the Warrumbungle 0.51-m telescope in Australia to track MiTEx. Indeed, MiTEx 1 (2006-024A) was imaged as a faint object close to the expected location (image above).

But about 5 degrees Northeast of MiTEx 1, I imaged another, very bright object (see image below) at approximately 172 W. It was too bright to be MiTEx 2 and didn't fit any known object. This UNID turned out to be the newly launched classified military COMSAT, MUOS 4 (2015-044A).

MUOS 4 on 16 September 2015
(click image to enlarge)

MUOS 4 was launched from Cape Canaveral with an Atlas V rocket two weeks earlier, on 2 September 2015. It is the fourth satellite in the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) system of Geosynchronous narrowband communication satellites, the first of which was launched in 2012. This system of military COMSAT is to provide communication facilities to 'mobile users': i.e. military personel in non-fixed positions such as ships, aircraft, tanks and vehicles or on foot. It is a replacement for the aging UFO constellation of COMSAT.

The MUOS system is to consist of four operational satellites and one spare fifth satellite. According to a publication by Oeting et al. in the Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest 30:2 of 2011, the operational satellites will be placed in slots at longitudes:

15.5 W
100 W
177 W
75 E

...while the spare satellite (MUOS 5, to be launched) will be placed at longitude 72 E. Compare this to the actual locations of the MUOS satellites according to our tracking:

MUOS constellation, from Oeting et al. 2011
(click image to enlarge)

Current locations of MUOS satellites,
based on amateur tracking:
MUOS 1   2012-09A       177 W  Pacific
MUOS 2   2013-036A      100 W  CONUS
MUOS 3   2015-002A     15.8 W  Atlantic

MUOS 4   2015-044A      172 W  (check-out)

(click map to enlarge)

The map and table above show the current locations of MUOS 1, 2 and 3 (from Mike McCant's INTTLES file). The positions agree well with the slots depicted in the mentioned publication.

(and yeah: if you think it is a tad silly that these orbits are 'classified' while the intended orbit slots have been published in a publicly available publication, you are of course right).

The yellow dots in the map are ground facilities related to the MUOS system. The MUOS constellation is designed such that each satellite has at least two Radio Acces Facilities (RAF) in range.

MUOS 4 imaged on 24 September 2015

My additional observations on September 24 (see image above) show that MUOS 4 is stationary at 172 W, as depicted in the map below. An approximate orbit for the satellite can be found here.

(click map to enlarge)

As MUOS 4 appears intended for an operational slot at longitude 75 E over the Indian Ocean (red dot in the map above), this means the current location at 172 W is not the intended operational longitude. Rather, it is a temporary initial check-out location. Once check-out is completed (and this might take several weeks), it will probably be moved to longitude 75 E.

(click images to enlarge)

This check-out position at 172 W has been used for the MUOS satellites before, according to Ted Molczan ( It is in range of three MUOS ground facilities: two Radio Acces Facilities (RAF) at Wahiawa in Hawaii and (although barely) Geraldton in Australia, and the primary Satellite Control Facility (SCF) in Pt. Mugu, California.

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