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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 23:28 GMT 00:28 UK
New US rocket blasts off
Atlas 5 lifting off
Faster, cheaper, more powerful, and facing competition

America's newest rocket has begun its maiden flight.

The Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Wednesday.

A lot is staked on the launch of the new rocket. The company has put more than $1bn into its development.

"It is probably the most important launch in the history of Atlas," says John Karas, vice president of Lockheed Martin.

Made in Moscow

Lockheed Martin
Atlas 5 will have a fast turnaround
The Atlas 5's first-stage engines are built near Moscow by Energia, the same Russian company that builds Soyuz spacecraft and modules for the International Space Station.

Atlas 5 consists of a first stage fuelled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, and a Centaur upper stage powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

The debut flight is made by a stripped-down version which will carry a communications satellite for the Eutelsat consortium.

When augmented with strap-on solid-fuel boosters and another Centaur booster, the new Atlas 5 can lift 20,250 kilograms (45,000 pounds), nearly twice the capacity of the last generation of Atlas rockets.

Lockheed Martin has plans to build an even heavier version, with three booster stages strapped together to lift future satellites.

With a diameter of almost four metres (13 feet), Atlas 5 is one of the largest rockets launched from Cape Canaveral since the giant Saturn V moon rockets 30 years ago.

Lockheed Martin
Inside the Atlas 5 core
It replaces a generation of Titan rockets, also built by Lockheed Martin, used largely by the US military to launch spy satellites.

"Some 85% of the Atlas 5 systems have already flown," said Mr Karas, who led the development of Atlas 5, explaining how the company tried to limit the risks usually associated with launching a new rocket.

The US Air Force, who will be one of the new rocket's main customers, began pushing for more reliable launch vehicles with greater flexibility about 10 years ago.

The result was the Atlas 5 and Boeing's Delta 4, which is to make its first lift-off later this year.

Overcrowded market

The satellite-launching market is suffering from too many rockets, too few satellites. "There is at least double if not triple overcapacity in the rocket market right now, " says John Karas.

Arianespace
Ariane: competition
Lockheed Martin's main competition, the European Arianespace, has also felt the crowding of the market.

"We have overcapacity of launchers and we have fewer satellites to launch," says Suzy Chamber, spokeswoman for Arianespace.

"Any new entrant on the market is competition, it forces down prices," she adds.

"It will be difficult for everybody, between the Atlases and Protons, Boeing with their Sealaunch and the Delta 4 coming soon," says Jacques Breton, a technical director for Arianespace.

"That makes five launchers on the market if you exclude the Japanese and their H-2A rocket."

Around 70% of Lockheed Martin and Boeing launches are filled with government orders, compared to 10% in Europe.

See also:

20 May 02 | Science/Nature
01 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
04 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
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