Thursday, 27 March 2014

Antitrust lawsuit between US firms over Russian rocket engine dropped

According to Space News, Orbital Sciences Corp has dropped the antitrust lawsuit it filed in June 2013 against United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, in which it alleged monopolization, attempt to monopolize or otherwise restraint the launch systems and services used for medium-class payload missions. The parties will undertake to resolve the issue through negotiations, notwithstanding Orbital’s right to refile the lawsuit.

The lawsuit concerned the use of the Russian engine RD-180 built by NPO Energomass and imported to the US by RD AMROSS. Lockheed Martin, now one of the two partners on the ULA, had signed an exclusivity agreement in the mid-90s on the use of the RD-180 engine, which it wanted to use on its Atlas rockets and therefore had co-funded its development. Orbital Sciences is interested in using the RD-180 engine on its Antares rocket to replace the current AJ-26 engine, which is a refurbished Soviet-era NK-33 engine, initially intended to be used in the Soviet lunar program. Orbital was claiming at least $515 million in damages – see more on the lawsuit here.

Orbital Sciences is under contract with NASA to deliver eight re-supply cargo flights to the ISS through 2016 and would like to use the more reliable RD-180 engine. At the same time, ULA, which uses the RD-180 engine has by far the greatest market share in the US national security payloads. US authorities are interested in the issue not only regarding market access of new entrants like the Orbital Sciences and the Space Explorations (SpaceX), but also (and mainly) for political reasons, i.e. the recent political tension on the Russian annexation of Crimea and the older statements of a Russian official on the possibility to ban exports of RD-180 to the US. Therefore, the US Defense Department, at the request of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, as well as the Air Force, under Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, are evaluating the possibility  to have the RD-180 engine manufactured in the US. Note here that RD AMROSS has a license to manufacture the RD-180 engine in the United States if ordered by ULA or the Defense Department.

See more on the issue here and here.

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