An Atlas V evolved expendable launch vehicle carries NASA's Mars Science Laboratory from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2011. The United Launch Alliance today announced an initiative to replace the RD-180 engine used in the rocket. (George Roberts/US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has signed agreements with “multiple” American firms to help develop a next-generation engine replacement, the company announced Monday.
ULA intends to move quickly on its new engine design. In a press release, the company says it will select a concept and supplier “by the fourth quarter of this year to enable initial launch capability by 2019 of the new system.” A spokeswoman for ULA declined to name the companies involved, citing non-disclosure agreements.
Experts differ on how long a new engine development would take and how much it would cost, but general agreement seems to be that five years is a minimum needed to develop the engine.
The goal is to develop an American-made replacement for the RD-180 Russian produced engine, which ULA uses on its Atlas V launch vehicle. That RD-180 has become a source of controversy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as an escalating series of sanctions has led to the threat of Russia cutting off the engine supply.
The company has expressed confidence that even if Russia does cut off the RD-180 supply — something both company and Air Force officials have noted does not appear to actually be happening — it could manage by shifting more launches to the Delta IV launch vehicle.
“While the RD-180 has been a remarkable success, we believe now is the right time for American investment in a domestic engine,” ULA President Michael Gass said in a statement announcing the news. “At the same time, given that ULA is the only certified launch provider of our nation’s most important satellites, it is critical that America preserve current capabilities and options while simultaneously pursuing this new engine.”
The statement also notes that the company is exploring how funding would work, including private investment or a public-private partnership. Eric Fanning, Air Force undersecretary, has said public-private partnerships could be the best way forward.
“It could mean that instead of pursuing a program to build an engine on our own, we invest in private partnerships to sort of launch some competition for an alternate engine,” Fanning said at May’s National Space Symposium. “It could be research and technology to get things started. So there are a range of options even if you decide you want an alternate engine that’s US built.”