Lockheed considers viability of resurrected Athena small satellite launcher programme

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A decision is expected soon from Lockheed Martin regarding whether to continue to resurrect the Athena programme, a small satellite launcher discontinued in 2001.

"It's currently in the works, and we would expect a decision probably by the end of the year," says Gregory Kehrl, Lockheed's Athena mission manager. "It's not a very fast process in a company as big as Lockheed. Our portfolio is very broad."

The series of launch vehicles was conceived, developed and built by Lockheed on internal funding to capture a burgeoning market for small satellites, and particularly for large constellations for satellite internet providers. The collapse of that market, the emergence of strong competition and a catastrophic 1999 launch failure led the company to pull the plug.

"Athena was put into soft standby after the Kodiak Star mission because there was just not a demonstrated strong pull from customers," says Kehrl. "We put it into soft standby, not ever intending to divest or get out of the business, but to wait until the time was right to bring back the small launch service."

There is a single Athena I in storage, plus a number of spare parts.

The reintroduction is largely built on what Lockheed sees as the emergence of a government smallsat market, says Kehrl. The US government appears to be moving towards smaller satellites, and a number of government-sponsored smallsats have been launched in recent years.

Athena would, however, re-enter a crowded marketplace. While some competing programmes - SpaceX's Falcon and Orbital Sciences' Taurus, among others - either have or appear at imminent risk of ending, a number of new competitors such as Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne have sprung up to fill the void.

To keep the programme sustainable, Lockheed would need two to three launches annually, plus more for the larger, as-yet unbuilt Athena III. At a price point of around $70 million for an Athena II, Lockheed would "like to fly four times [a year], like everybody would in this business, [although] it's probably not fantastically realistic", says Kehrl.

"Neither of those products [would] really [be] brought back on strictly a commercial viability basis because, let's face it, everybody knows the launch services business is really not exploding like crazy," he adds, "but there's a steady need for reliable products."