Court Rejects ULA Motion to Dismiss Orbital Lawsuit Over Rocket Engines

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

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema has rejected motions from ULA and engine supplier RD-Amross to dismiss an anti-trust lawsuit brought against them by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Space News reports.

Orbital wants Russian RD-180 engines to replace the AJ-26 engines the company uses in its new Antares launch vehicle. However, ULA has exclusive use of the RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rocket through a supplier agreement with RD-Amross, which is a joint venture between United Technologies Corp. and NPO Energomash of Russia.

ULA and RD-Amross asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that Orbital has viable alternatives to the AJ-26 engines and that RD-180s cannot be sold to foreign parties without the approval of the Russian government. Thus, Orbital could not prove the $500 to $1.5 million in damages it is seeking over ULA’s monopoly.

Judge Brinkema disagreed, and she ordered the parties to begin a a series of pre-trial conferences beginning next month. The lawsuit could go to trial in May or June unless it is settled.

Orbital’s Antares rocket is powered by AJ-26 engines, which are refurbished NK-33 engines left over from the Soviet Union’s manned lunar program. The company’s supplier, Aerojet Rocketdyne, has a limited supply of these 40-year old engines, which are no longer in production.

Orbital says it will have to end production of the Antares unless it can use RD-180 engines. The company claims that ULA’s exclusive contract to purchase the engines amounts to a monopoly over medium-lift missions.

However, Aerojet Rockeydyne has said it has reached an agreement with the original Russian manufacturer to reopen production of NK-33 engines if Orbital elects to place an order.  How expensive reopening the production line would be is unclear.