Orbital Sciences [ORB] has filed a lawsuit against United Launch Alliance (ULA), according to a company spokesman, likely for access to a line of exclusive liquid propulsion rocket motor engines. 

Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski confirmed the development, but wouldn’t comment beyond that. Beneski said the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Virginia. ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said the company wasn’t aware of any litigation. ULA is a joint venture between Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT].

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently investigating alleged anti-competitive practices on the part of ULA and Russian rocket engine supplier RD AMROSS related to the exclusive sale of the RD-180 rocket engine. The FTC is looking into whether an agreement between RD AMROSS and ULA for the exclusive supply of the RD-180 engine is preventing other companies, like Orbital, from competing for space launch services, particularly in the medium-lift space.

Orbital says it wants access to the RD-180 engine so it can ensure the Antares rocket provides military, civil and commercial customers with affordable medium-class launch alternatives. Orbital has developed the Antares medium-class launcher, which currently relies on the AJ-26 engine provided by GenCorp’s [GY] Aerojet division, an upgraded version of the NK-33 engine developed by Russian engine manufacturer Kuznetsov. There are only a limited number of the AJ-26/NK-33s remaining and to be a long-term competitor in the medium-launch business, Orbital wants the RD-180, for which it says there are currently no viable alternatives.

The senate delegations in Maryland and Virginia have also asked ULA to consider their viewpoint in this regarding NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, where Orbital launches its medium-class Antares launch vehicle. In a May 24 letter to Boeing CEO James McNerney and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, Maryland Sens. Barb Mikulski (D) and Ben Cardin (D) and Virginia Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) express concern over the effects the RD-180 dispute could have on Wallops Island. 

The senators say over $150 million in federal, state and private funds have been invested in Wallops infrastructure to be able to support NASA’s program Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to re-supply the International Space Station (ISS) and the medium-class launch needs of other government agencies. The senators also ask that the benefits of commercial completion for medium-lift contracts and the preservation of jobs at Wallops Island be taken into consideration.

RD AMROSS is a joint venture between Russian rocket engine manufacturer NPO Energomash and Rocketdyne, formerly a unit of United Technologies Corp. [UTX] subsidiary Pratt & Whitney, and provides the RD-180 to ULA as the main engine for its Atlas V launch vehicle. The RD-180 is manufactured by Energomash.

GenCorp’s $550 million acquisition of its Rocketdyne unit from United Technologies was recently approved by federal regulators. The companies are now awaiting Russian government approval of the transfer of UTC’s 50 percent stake in RD AMROSS to GenCorp. GenCorp Aerojet Rocketdyne’s new CEO, Warren Boley, said June 17 he was “bullish” on approval, but it is not guaranteed.

Boley said there are 43 NK-33s in Aerojet Rocketdyne’s possession with approximately another 12 to 18 in Kuznetsov’s possession. Boley said Aerojet Rocketdyne has a contract to deliver 20 HJ-26s, the upgraded NK-33s, to Orbital as part of its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Boley said Kuznetsov has indicated to Aerojet Rocketdyne its intention to restart NK-33 engine production that will be ready to be upgraded to HJ-26s.