Resurrected Athena launch vehicle set for 2015 flight

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Lockheed Martin's Athena launch vehicle is set for a new launch in 2015, the first since its deactivation in 2001.

The Athena II, powered by two Castor 120 solid rocket motors and one Castor 30 solid-fuel upper stage, will launch a primary commercial payload and use spare capacity to loft an undisclosed number of Cubesats from its pad at Kodiak, Alaska.

"We are looking to fly at the end of 2015, and we're working very hard to close that contract with the customer," says Gregory Kehrl, Lockheed's Athena programme manager. "This one is a commercial customer."

A second launch from the same customer is under discussion.

Athena's resurrection is meant to tap into the growing market for small satellites, clustering several together for efficiency. Interest in the potential for lower cost is offset by the needs of schedule harmonisation, risk tolerance and orbital inclination of potential customers.

"It's a very interesting business case if you can figure out how to do it very low cost. As far as I can tell, that's eluded pretty much everybody," says Kehrl. "It's a sophisticated service you're providing."

Aside from using existing hardware and infrastructure, Lockheed minimises its costs by borrowing much of the programme's engineering talent from other company programmes and planning to launch one Athena every 18 months - considered a very low launch rate.

Athena's primary market before deactivation was government payloads - often more tolerant of price and schedule disruptions - which Lockheed intends to tap into once again. Though NASA and the US Department of Defense have robust small satellite programmes, changes made to Athena - the upper stage, an Orbis-21D, is no longer manufactured, and was replaced by an ATK Castor 30 - keep the agency from purchasing a flight before the configuration has launched successfully.

"Until we fly our new configuration with the Castor 30 the NASA folks would prefer not to let us put in a bid on upcoming missions. Their technical bar is held very, very high," says Kehrl.

Lockheed plans to bid the Athena to launch a DoD payload when the opportunity arises later in 2013, but the company declined to comment further, citing competitive concerns.

The Athena III, a proposed larger version, awaits a sufficient customer base. "It's still on the table, part of the Athena family, it's a viable rocket," says Kehrl. "But [we] still need some return in the market to justify pursuing that."

Lockheed is also examining the possibility of a Florida launch site, should interest materialise.