Tuesday, 14 September 2021

PAN (NEMESIS 1) is on the move again

Pan on August 8/9, 2021, imaged from Leiden. Click image to enlarge

Five years ago, in 2016, I wrote a long article in The Space Review titled "A NEMESIS in the sky: PAN, Mentor 4 and close encounters of the SIGINT kind". The primary subjects of that article were two SIGINT satellites: PAN (Nemesis 1) and Mentor 4.

In the article, I discussed what we had observed and deduced about PAN as amateur trackers, to what had been recently revealed about PAN by leaked documents from the Snowden files.

In the article I documented the frequent movements of PAN (2009-047A): for four years between its launch in September 2009 and mid 2013, PAN, very unusual for a geosynchronous satellite, was roving from location to location, each time being put close to a satellite for commercial satellite telephony.
For information on the "why" of that, and the larger context of it (a new kind of SIGINT information gathering), I refer to the earlier mentioned Space Review paper which goes into details.

Mid-2013, four years after launch, the frequent relocations stopped. For 8 years, the position of PAN remained stable in longitude near 47o.7 E. It's roving days, snooping around and sniffing other satellites, were over. Until this year.  

Somewhere between 6 February and 7 May 2021, PAN started to move again, eastwards in longitude. Observed longitudes over the period May-August 2021 suggest a drift eastwards at about 0.025 deg/day

Assuming a stable drift, the move appears to have been initiated within a few days of 11 February, 2021.The last observation still showing PAN at 47.7 E was on 6 February 2021 (as it happens, our network did not observe it again untill early May 2021 when it had already moved eastwards by two degrees).

The diagram below (an updated version of one that appeared in my 2016 Space Review article) shows the positions in longitude that PAN has been taking up since its launch in 2006. Note the frequent relocations over the period 2009-2013, then the long stabilization at 47.7E, and the start of a new drift episode in 2021:

click diagram to enlarge

The question now is, what this drift since February means:

(1) Has it deliberately been brought into a drift state to move it to an eventual new position? 

(2) Has it reached end-of-life and been manoeuvered into a graveyard orbit?

A 'graveyard orbit' is usually an orbit that is located at least 235 km higher than a geosynchronous orbit. That does not appear to be the case here: if anything, the orbit seems to be a few km lower than it previously was. So it appears to be option (1).

It will be interesting to see whether PAN will stabilize its longitude at some point or not, and where that will be. Unfortunately, as it is drifting eastwards it is getting lower in my sky (currently, it is some 16 degrees above my local horizon), and there do not appear to be many other amateurs covering it currently.

It would be interesting to see whether radio observers can detect radio signals from PAN, which shortly after launch was emitting at frequencies similar to that of the "UFO" (UHF Follow On) constellation.

PAN on 2/3 June, 2021, imaged from Schiermonnikoog Island. Click to enlarge

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