WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp., which wants to buy Russian-made RD-180 engines for its medium-lift Antares rocket, is suing rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) for blocking any such sale, according to court papers dated June 20. 

Orbital of Dulles, Va., claims Denver-based ULA has not only illegally prevented open-market sale of the RD-180 but also has monopolized the launch services market for certain satellites in violation of U.S. antitrust laws, according to a complaint filed June 20 with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria.

Orbital wants a federal judge to strike down an exclusivity agreement ULA has with its engine supplier, RD AMROSS, and to force ULA to pay Orbital at least $515 million — and potentially more than $1.5 billion — for damages arising from ULA’s alleged monopolization of “launch systems and services used for medium-class payload missions,” according to court papers. Orbital wants the case to go before a jury.

The lawsuit marks an escalation in Orbital’s spat with ULA over the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which is imported to the United States by RD AMROSS, a joint venture of United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Conn., and NPO Energomash of Moscow, which manufactures the engine. United Technologies Corp.’s recently divested rocket propulsion division is the original U.S. partner in RD AMROSS, but the joint venture has not yet conveyed as part of that transaction.

Because of an exclusivity agreement forged decades ago with Lockheed Martin, one of ULA’s two parent companies along with Boeing Co., RD AMROSS is only permitted to sell the RD-180 to ULA. Lockheed Martin, which needed a main engine for its new line of Atlas rockets, helped fund the RD-180’s development.

The exclusivity arrangement has been the subject of an investigation by the antitrust division of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission since April. That review was prompted by complaints by Orbital, which views the RD-180 as a long-term replacement for the AJ-26 that currently powers the Antares rocket’s first stage.

In its June complaint, Orbital alleged that ULA’s exclusivity agreement with RD AMROSS violates the U.S. Sherman Antitrust Act and that ULA’s alleged monopolization of “medium-class payload missions” violates section four of the Clayton Antitrust Act. 

Orbital’s interest in the RD-180 stems from concerns about the long-term supply of the AJ-26, which is based on the NK-33 engine designed for the Soviet Union’s failed lunar exploration program, and produced during the 1960s and 1970s. Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, Calif., purchased and refurbished a limited number of the engines for the Antares and says it has secured an agreement to restart production in Russia.  

Orbital is under contract with NASA to use Antares and a cargo capsule dubbed Cygnus for eight cargo-delivery missions to the international space station. To begin executing on that contract, Orbital must first complete two successful demonstration missions: a test launch of Antares that took place in April, and a launch of Antares carrying a Cygnus capsule, now scheduled for September.  

Orbital says it has enough AJ-26 engines for these missions but not enough for an expected set of follow-on resupply missions to the space station. Competition for these missions is expected to begin around December, and Orbital would prefer not to include NK-33s in its proposal to NASA, according to one industry source.

Aerojet Rocketdyne President Warren Boley said June 17 that Russia’s NK Engines Co. — the former Kuznetsov Design Bureau — has agreed to restart NK-33 production provided Orbital signs a contract for more of the engines. 

Boley would not say what it would cost to restart production, and Orbital, in a June 17 letter to Capitol Hill, said it did not know “the technical or financial specifics” of what Boley discussed at the Paris Air Show. 

Aerojet Rocketdyne was officially created June 13 when Aerojet of Sacramento acquired its main U.S. rival in the liquid propulsion business, Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne, for $550 million. Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne was Energomash’s original partner in RD AMROSS.

Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski declined to comment on the litigation. 

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said the company is “aware of pending litigation but we have not been officially served at this time.”


Antitrust Probe Is Latest Challenge to ULA’s Government Market Dominance

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...