Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Athena Rising

The most exciting story of the day (coming just one day before the SpaceShipTwo design unveiling) is the announcement of a new Delta II-class rocket, informally known as Athena III. Brought to you by the team of PlanetSpace, ATK and Lockheed Martin, it's a strong contender for the Commercial Orbital Transportation System contract.

The design challenges posed by "Athena III" are interesting to speculate on. Stage 1 consists of 2.5 segments from the Shuttle SRB. Stage 2 is a Castor 120 (the link to the old Athena I/II rockets.) Stage 3 is the Castor 30, a new development from ATK. Topping it all off is an Orbital Assist Module from Lockheed (and probably an Atlas-heritage payload fairing.)

The 2.5 segment SRB reminds me of the 3-segment SRB proposed for the "Stumpy"crew launcher. As the industry knows well, changing the length of a solid rocket is no trivial matter. Perhaps ATK is willing to settle for the change in thrust profile and burn rate that will accompany the shortened SRB. Or perhaps ATK has been working on this new SRB for a while in secret. Most interesting will be ATK's plans for the SRB casings and nozzles. Will they build new casings and nozzles that will be expended? If the casings are new, will ATK go with a composite material instead of the steel casings of the old SRB?

I don't know too much about Castor 30, but I start to suspect that it will also serve as the upper stage for Orbital's proposed "Taurus II" launcher. The Castor 120 is a known quantity, which should increase our confidence in "Athena III."

Overall, the design appears to be fairly low-risk. This is a drastic (but fortunate) change for PlanetSpace, which had previously backed the Canadian Arrow suborbital rocket and the "Silver Dart" lifting body. In search of a COTS profit, the company is turning to low-risk, short-term solutions. Hopefully any profits from Athena III will continue to push the development of Silver Dart.

In the battle to replace Delta II, the fight between Taurus II and Athena III will be a stiff one. While Orbital has deliberately designed a rocket to minimize operational costs, it remains to be seen how well the company will adapt to the largest liquid-fueled rocket it has ever dealt with. A longer-range issue is what the company will do once it's stockpile of Russian-built NK-33 engines is depleted. Athena III is at a cost disadvantage (solid propellants don't come cheap,) but it has the potential to be highly reliable. Moreover, the SRB-derived nature of Athena III will probably gain NASA's support if it means trickle-down benefits for the Ares launchers.

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