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New ‘affordable rocket’ could fly lunar missions

athena II.jpgA new “affordable rocket” has been announced by Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems.

The companies say their new line of Athena rockets will be able to carry satellites of up to 1,712 kg into low Earth orbit or even make “missions to the Moon” and will fill a “critical niche in affordable rockets” (press release). They don’t say just what ‘affordable’ means in this context, but space amateurs may be better off sticking to the weather balloons for now.

Lockheed and Alliant’s rocket is a next generation of their Athena rockets, one of which is still the only commercial vehicle to have flown a lunar mission (1998’s Lunar Prospector). The companies note that seven Athena I and Athena II rockets flew in the 1995 to 2001 period when it made them, although Wikipedia notes that two of these flights failed to launch their satellites.

The new ‘second generation’ Athena rockets will be ready for use in 2012, using the same first and second stages as the old design, but with a new upper stage.

Image: Lunar Prospector launches atop an Athena II / NASA

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