Air Force awards Ursa Major rocket engine development contact

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded the rocket engine startup Ursa Major a contract to develop two different rocket engines.

Under the contract, the Colorado-based firm will build and test a prototype of its new Draper engine for hypersonics, and further develop its 200,000-pound thrust Arroway engine for space launch.

…Under the AFRL contract, for which neither the lab or company provided a value, Ursa Major will also build a dedicated test stand for Draper and plans to hotfire the engine within 12 months.

Arroway, on the other hand, is a reusable liquid oxygen and methane staged combustion engine for medium and heavy launch vehicles. Ursa Major first announced development the 200,000-pound thrust engine last August, explaining that when clustered together, Arroway engines could replace the Russian-made RD-180 and RD-181, which are no longer available to US launch firms.

According to Ursa Major’s press release, the AFRL contract will allow further development of Arroway with a hotfire expected in 2025.

Ursa Major already has several contracts for its smaller Hadley engine, from the rocket startups Phantom, Vector, Astra, and the Air Force, and has built more than a hundred so far. The Arroway meanwhile is being developed as an American replacement for the Russian engines used by Northrop Grumman in its Antares rocket.

All in all, it appears Ursa Major is becoming a major challenger to Aerojet Rocketdyne, which in recent years had a lock on most government contracts for rocket engines. That lock resulted in very expensive engines that took years to build. The government (and others) are now finding someone else to provide this service at a better cost and far more quickly. We shall see whether Aerojet Rocketdyne responds to this competition properly, or goes the way of the horse carriage.