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After 10 Years in Storage, Athena Rockets Will Attack Small-Sat Launch Backlog

Apr. 4, 2012 - 04:20PM   |  
By DEBRA WERNER   |   Comments
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Lockheed Martin was building an Athena rocket to launch a NASA Earth science satellite when space agency officials called back in 2000 with a question. Instead of flying a single, large satellite into orbit, could the rocket deliver four small spacecraft into four distinct orbital slots for NASA and the Pentagon?

After 11 months of engineering work, Lockheed Martin responded in September 2001 with the Kodiak Star mission. The Athena 1 rocket blasted off from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, placed three Pentagon technology experiments in 800-kilometer orbits, sank down to an altitude of 500 kilometers, dropped off a NASA upper atmospheric research satellite, and used its remaining fuel to deorbit.

The impressive mission turned out to be Athena’s swan song. Lockheed halted the Athena program in 2001, after it became clear that the commercial communication industry’s plans to fill low Earth orbit with constellations of satellites were faltering in the face of cellular towers and mobile phones. Now, officials at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo., are planning to revive Athena, citing new markets, including in the defense and intelligence areas.

Top defense and intelligence officials have made no secret of their frustration with high launch costs and their desire to introduce competition into the market. Small satellites featuring commercially produced electronic components are becoming increasingly capable and inexpensive. In addition, the U.S. National Security Space Strategy, approved in 2011 by the then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, suggests that constellations of small satellites might be more resilient than large, monolithic spacecraft.

Lockheed is pushing ahead with its revival plan, despite recent evidence suggesting the possibility of hard times ahead for small satellite advocates in the defense and intelligence arenas. The Obama administration’s 2013 budget would terminate the Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space office, which was working on plans to rapidly build small satellites for crisis responses. Elements of the ORS initiative would be moved to the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base. In the intelligence realm, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has rejected a proposal made on the Senate side to shift to smaller satellites for the country’s next-generation imaging spy satellites.

“Small satellites do not fit the prevailing paradigm for collection of imagery and signals intelligence,” said consultant Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute by email. “The prevailing approach favors billion-dollar spacecraft that collect massive amounts of information in exquisite detail over long periods.”

Even so, Lockheed Martin sees a healthy defense and intelligence market for smaller spacecraft in the science and technology area. Many such spacecraft have been sitting in clean rooms waiting for an affordable ride to space, said Gregory Kehrl, Lockheed Martin’s Athena mission manager. “We are offering customers a chance to buy a seat on a plane instead of the whole plane,” he added.

Starting in 2014, Lockheed plans to establish an annual rideshare service, filling up the Athena rocket with small satellites. Customers will pay only for their portion of the launch cost and obtain a ride to their desired orbital location. “We like Athena because it was built like an F-150 pickup truck,” said Kehrl. “It’s reliable for moving stuff from here to there.”

For the first flight, set to occur in about two years, Lockheed Martin plans to launch an Athena 2 from Kodiak to carry about six small spacecraft (in the 50 kilogram to 170 kilogram range) into two circular orbits. Remaining payload space will be filled with a collection of government-sponsored cubesats, the miniature satellites that measure 10 centimeters on a side. The Athena 2 flight will feature 32 separation events, “more than anyone has tried before,” Kehrl said.

Athena rockets can perform all those separations because the launch vehicle is designed to remain on orbit for hours, continually reorienting itself and resetting onboard computers in preparation for the next event.

“It can change altitude by hundreds of kilometers and still reserve enough propellant to deorbit the upper stage,” Kehrl said.

The Athena rocket derives its ability to place multiple small payloads into distinct orbital slots from the precision pointing systems company engineers refined while working on the Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile program, said Al Simpson, Lockheed Martin’s Athena program manager. That feature is the rocket’s primary selling point for customers seeking to send a single satellite to a precise location or to deploy a satellite constellation. For example, a government agency might opt to use Athena to place four, 200-kilogram surveillance payloads into a single orbital plane to provide persistent coverage of an important target, Kehrl said.

A launch customer focused exclusively on finding the lowest-cost ride for a small payload might choose to fly as a secondary payload on larger rockets built by United Launch Alliance or Space Exploration Technologies. Customers in the market for an entire rocket also may find that buying Athena is more expensive than purchasing a Minotaur rocket, which Orbital Sciences Corp. assembles using retired Minuteman and Peacekeeper missile stages.

For small satellites seeking a dedicated ride, the four-stage, solid-fueled Minotaur 4 has been the vehicle of choice. Orbital Sciences does not publicly discuss the costs of Minotaur rockets, but industry officials said it typically costs $50 million to launch a Minotaur 4, which can carry 1,730 kilograms into low Earth orbit. By comparison, the three-stage Athena 2, which has an advertised price of $65 million on the commercial market, is designed to fly 1,712 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

In spite of the higher cost for the entire launch vehicle, Lockheed is banking on government program managers’ ability to save money by participating in the proposed rideshare program. Government agencies also may support the revived Athena program due to concerns about the U.S. commercial launch industry and solid-rocket motor industrial base, Simpson said.

The National Space Policy unveiled in 2010 cites a goal of “energizing competitive domestic industries,” including space launch. In May, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics sent a report to Congress on efforts to preserve the “engineering and design skills and production capabilities” of the solid-rocket motor industry. “The DoD needs to sustain the solid-rocket motor industry because the United States will continue to rely on solid-rocket motors over the long term,” the report added.

When Athena was produced in the 1990s, United Technologies built the upper stage. Since that motor is no longer in production, Lockheed is equipping new Athenas with Castor 30 upper stages built by Alliant Techsystems (ATK), one of the nation’s two remaining solid-rocket manufacturers. Athenas could launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Vandenberg Air Force Base and NASA Wallops Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Annual rideshare flights will originate from the Kodiak Launch Complex because it offers access to circular and highly elliptical polar orbits, which make extended arcs to maximize surveillance time or communications coverage for specific regions.

The Lockheed Martin-ATK team is keeping close tabs on upcoming Air Force competition for space-launch vehicles of varying sizes, known as the Orbital Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3). The OSP-3 is designed to provide performance and system design data on launch vehicles for national security and civil space missions “while providing an on-ramp for emerging capabilities,” according to a draft request for proposals published June 16. The new entrant portion of the OPS-3 stems from a pact the Defense Department, NRO and NASA signed in October to enhance launch-vehicle competition and to give government officials greater flexibility in choosing rockets for specific missions based on cost and risk, according to the Air Force Space and Missile System Center's Space Development and Test Directorate. For billion-dollar satellites, agencies are likely to rely on rockets with long histories of success. Program managers seeking inexpensive rides for smaller spacecraft opt to fly newer, less-expensive rockets.

The Air Force was scheduled to release a final OSP-3 RFP in March seeking rockets in two categories: those capable of lifting 400 pounds to 5,000 pounds into low Earth orbit and those designed to place 5,000 pounds to 20,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. The OSP-3 also will enable government agencies to buy rockets for suborbital missions. Program managers plan to award multiple contracts that do not limit the government to specific quantities or delivery dates. Rocket builders who win OSP-3 contracts will be able to compete for specific launch missions.

The Air Force plans to award contracts by September, Air Force Space and Missile System Center’s Space Development and Test Directorate officials said via email.

When the final OSP-3 RFP is released, Lockheed Martin will make a decision on whether to compete, Simpson said. In the meantime, the company is inviting potential customers to participate in its 2014 demonstration flight. Those invitations, which were extended to the Army, Air Force, NRO, NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory, garnered a “huge response,” Kehrl said.

While Kehrl has high hopes for Athena’s future, he acknowledges that it will take time for the rocket’s rideshare service to attract a steady stream of paying customers. Many Defense Department program managers are eager to test hardware and software in space flight, but few have money in their budgets to cover launch cost. Since 1965, government program managers turned to the Pentagon’s Space Test Program for free rides on expendable rockets or space shuttles. President Obama’s 2013 budget sent to Congress in February proposes terminating the Space Test Program and turning the responsibility for finding room for extra payloads over to the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

So while Lockheed Martin plans to keep costs as low as possible by launching multiple payloads on annual rideshare flights, those flights won’t be free. If customers begin designing payloads to fit the mass and volume requirements for the Athena rideshare program, “they will be able to fly very inexpensively and we can fit them on any flight,” Kehrl said. Still, “it’s a new capability that customers will have to build into future budget cycles,” Simpson said. “That takes time.”

This story appeared in the April 2012 issue of C4ISR Journal.

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