WASHINGTON — A classified U.S. government communications satellite dubbed PAN was launched Sept. 8 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket that liftedoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The satellite separated from its launch vehicle — an Atlas 5 401 with a single common core booster and single-engine Centaur upper stage — approximately two hours after the 5:35 p.m. EDT lift off, according to a ULA press release.

 ULA said it conducted the launch on behalf of Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., which builds satellites for U.S. military and intelligence agencies and for the commercial telecommunications industry, among others.

“Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the PAN mission, which includes a commercial-based satellite and launch system solution for the U.S. Government,” Lockheed Martin spokesman Steve Tatum said Sept. 8 in an e-mail. “Additional details of the mission are of a classified nature.”

A press release issued Sept. 8 by the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which operates the Cape Canaveral launch range, identified PAN as “a U.S. government communications satellite.”

 “This launch helps to ensure that vital communications will continue to bolster our nation’s capabilities,” the wing’s commander, Air Force Brig. Gen. Edward Bolton, said in the press release.

No specific government agency has claimed ownership of the satellite. The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office typically acknowledges when one of its satellites is launched, even though the vast majority of them are classified.

Amateur satellite trackers speculate that the geosynchronous communications satellite, based on Lockheed Martin’s A2100 spacecraft platform, was sponsored by a U.S. intelligence agency concerned about a gap between the U.S. Navy’s aging Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) Follow-On satellite constellation and the deployment of the next-generation Mobile User Objective System, which consists of A2100-based satellites currently under construction. The Navy had been looking for opportunities to fly a UHF gap-filler payload on a commercial satellite but scrapped those plans earlier this year, saying it could not find a flight for a hosted payload until around 2012.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...