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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Aerojet Rocketdyne and two other firms on Monday said they are exploring options for obtaining the data rights to the Atlas 5 launch vehicle and swapping out its Russian-built engine with the AR1 engine that Aerojet Rocketdyne is developing.
The Pentagon is scrambling to comply with a new U.S. law that bans use after 2019 of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine that fuels the Atlas 5 rocket for launches of military and intelligence satellites. Congress passed the law after Russia's annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine last year.
United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co that now launches most big U.S. military and spy satellites, is working to develop a less expensive U.S.-fueled rocket called Vulcan, to use for military, civilian and commercial launches from the early 2020s.
The joint venture hopes to use a new engine being developed by Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, but sees Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1 engine as a backup.
ULA will soon face competition from privately-held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which is nearing Air Force certification to compete for some military launches.
Aerojet Rocketdyne's announcement raises the possibility that a third team could compete for rocket launches.
Monday was the deadline for companies to respond to a draft request for proposals issued by the Air Force in a competition to develop prototypes for a homegrown propulsion system.
Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet Rocketdyne's vice president for advanced space and launch systems, said adapting a new U.S.-built engine to the Atlas 5 rocket was the "lowest risk, most rapid and affordable" way to end U.S. reliance on Russian engines. She said it made no sense to retire the most capable and flexible launch system available today.
Aerojet Rocketdyne says the AR1 engine could be certified in 2019, and integration onto the Atlas 5 should follow soon after.
Aerojet Rocketdyne, private research firm Dynetics Inc, and Schafer Corp, an engineering firm headed by former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, asked Defense Secretary Ash Carter about the data and production rights of the Atlas 5, and use of its launch facilities, in a letter dated April 29.
ULA officials say they own the data rights to the Atlas 5, since the Air Force hired the company to provide launch services instead of buying the rockets outright.
A Pentagon spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the letter.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Christian Plumb