Orbital Drops Lawsuit Against ULA

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)
RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

Orbital Sciences Corporation has dropped its anti-trust lawsuit against ULA over the RD-180 rocket engine — at least for the time being.

“The parties will now undertake to negotiate a business resolution for Orbital’s access to the RD-180 rocket engine, subject to all necessary approvals from the U.S. and Russian governments,” Orbital said in the filing. “If a mutually agreeable resolution is not reached, Orbital will have the option to refile its lawsuit.”

ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, launches most U.S. government space missions, and virtually all U.S. national security payloads, aboard its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. The Atlas 5’s main engine is the RD-180, which was developed by Russia’s NPO Energomash under contract to Lockheed Martin and is sold exclusively to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture of Energomash and United Technologies Corp.

Orbital needs a replacement for the AJ-26 engine, which is used in the first stage of the company’s new Antares launch vehicle.  There is a limited supply of AJ-26 engines, which are refurbished NK-33 engines left over from the Soviet space program.

The negotiations come as the Defense Department has begun a review of whether ULA should continue to purchase RD-180 engines from Russia. Tensions over the Russian takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region have raised questions over U.S. dependence on Russian engine technology.

ULA says it has more than two year supply of RD-180 engines in case the Russian government decides to cut off the supply.

Meanwhile, Defense Department officials are considering whether to produce RD-180 engines under license in the United States. This was part of the original plan when the engines were first used, but the option was never implemented.

It is not clear exactly how much it would cost to produce the engine domestically, or how that would affect the overall cost of an Atlas V launch at a time when ULA is facing increased competition from low-cost launch provider SpaceX.

Building engines for ULA and Orbital would spread out start-up and production costs over a broader customer base. How much the companies might have to pay to restart production, and whether the U.S. government would contribute to the cost, remain to be seen.

Another key issue involves quality. The RD-180 engine is highly reliable, but it is also complicated to build. Whether a domestically produced RD-180 engine would have that same level of quality and reliability is a crucial point to consider.