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U.S. Air Force Kicks Off Contest to Replace Russian Rocket Engines

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The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday formally kicked off a competition for development of new prototype rocket propulsion systems, aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian engines to launch military and intelligence satellites.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, who heads the Air Force's Space and Missiles Systems Center, told reporters on a teleconference that initial proposals were due by June 23, and that the government hoped to divide $160 million in contracts among up to four bidders on a rolling basis beginning in September.

The program will require bidders to use their own funds to cover a third of the cost of the prototypes, Greaves said. Those investments, slated to last 12 to 18 months, will pave the way for later service contracts for the launch of key military and spy satellites, the Air Force said.

The Air Force is scrambling to meet a congressional deadline for ending use of Russian-built RD-180 engines to U.S. launch military or intelligence satellites by 2019, a ban implemented after Russia last year annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine. Russia's actions sparked concerns about relying on the Russian engines to power the Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance.

ULA is expected to compete against SpaceX, which was certified last week to compete for military and spy satellite launches. Other companies, including Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc , said they were also studying their options. Blue Origin, a company owned by founder Jeff Bezos, is already working on a new rocket engine for ULA's use.