Successful first flight of Bundeswehr spaceplane demonstrator


On November 8th, POLARIS successfully conducted the first flight of the spaceplane demonstrator ATHENA from the airport of Peenemünde. ATHENA was built under a contract awarded by the Bundeswehr in March 2022. ATHENA is already the third scaled spaceplane demonstrator built and flown by POLARIS, and the first flight vehicle built under a customer contract.

The first flight took place within a dedicated restricted airspace (ED-R) that was implemented by Deutsche Flugsicherung for POLARIS flight testing. The ED-R covers the airport of Peenemünde and adjacent Baltic Sea waters, with a total area of 260 square kilometers.

The vehicle was operated by Guinness record drone pilot Niels Herbrich, supported by an automated flight controller for vehicle stabilization and stall prevention, and a Beyond-Visual-Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS) telemetry system. The first flight covered approximately 10 kilometers of ground distance.

ATHENA is 3.5 m long and features a nominal take-off mass of 120 kg. The vehicle is initially equipped with 4 turbojet engines, and is designed to reach Mach 0.4 under turbine power. The center section of the vehicle is designed for later integration of a rocket engine and a corresponding rocket propellant system, which greatly increases vehicle performance. The strong and stiff vehicle structure is designed for lateral maneuver load factors of 6.6 g, while the robust landing gear provides extra durability during hard landings.

Flight preparation on the runway

ATHENA in the air

ATHENA in the air

Video sequences from first flight


ATHENA over the Baltic Sea (nose-mounted on-board camera)

POLARIS is proud of having designed, built, and test-flown the vehicle in under 8 months, while being fully in line with the project schedule and budget. This also included mastering the complex regulatory framework, which enabled POLARIS to operate a 120 kg spaceplane demonstrator from a densely populated country such as Germany. 

Celebration of the flight-test team after landing

Moreover, POLARIS is pleased to have been given the opportunity to exhibit ATHENA at this year’s Berlin Security Conference (30th of November to 1st of December 2022).

The first flight of ATHENA marks the climax of an intensive 5-week-long flight-testing phase with 3 multi-day flight test campaigns at 2 airports:

  • Rotenburg/Wümme campaign (6th-7th of October)
  • Peenemünde-1 campaign (28th-31st of October)
  • Peenemünde-2 campaign (7th-8th of November)

During these campaigns:

  • 3 scaled demonstrators of up to 120 kg mass were flown
  • 2 of them conducting their first flights
  • A total of 21 flights were conducted

These flight campaigns provided invaluable data that will be used for project acceleration and risk-reduction of the full-size spaceplane, and will be continued in 2023. Meanwhile, design works on the fourth demonstrator “NOVA” have started, which will fly in the second half of 2023. NOVA will be much larger and much more sophisticated than previous vehicles, and will demonstrate supersonic flight capability. NOVA is the last high-performance demonstrator, before the focus shifts to the development of the full-size spaceplane.

POLARIS would like to thank all parties that enabled or supported the previous flight campaigns, including:

  • The whole POLARIS team
  • The drone pilots Niels Herbrich and Christian Hidde
  • Bundeswehr
  • Airport Peenemünde and Dr. Thomas Lamla
  • Airport Rotenburg/Wümme
  • Landesluftfahrtbehörde Bremen (vehicle operation license)
  • Luftfahrtbundesamt
  • Deutsche Flugsicherung (ED-R implementation)
  • Bundesministerium für Digitales und Verkehr (ED-R implementation)
  • Office of Prof. Giemulla and Dr. van Schyndel (environmental and regulatory assessment)
  • Bundesnetzagentur (special radio licenses for long-range telemetry and flight termination system)
  • Landesluftfahrtbehörde Niedersachsen
  • Landesluftfahrtbehörde Mecklenburg Vorpommern
  • HDI Global (special drone insurance)
  • Various component suppliers
ATHENA in a former MIG-23 shelter at Peenemünde Airport

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