By Irene Klotz
Cape Canaveral, Fla (Reuters) - A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket is being prepared for a commercial satellite launch on Friday, a market the Lockheed Martin and Boeing partnership has said it aims to grow to as its monopoly on U.S. military launches ends.
ULA has four commercial launches on its 2016 schedule, including an Earth-imaging spacecraft for DigitalGlobe, a communications satellite for EchoStar Corp and a pair of space station cargo ships for Orbital ATK, the company said.
The unmanned rocket scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will carry a communications satellite for Mexico. Launch is scheduled for at 6:08 a.m. EDT on Friday.
The Morelos 3 satellite launch will be just the 12th time in 100 missions that ULA flies for a non-U.S. government customer, a review of the company’s flight records showed.
ULA’s growing interest in the commercial satellite launch market comes as privately owned SpaceX is poised to break ULA’s nine-year monopoly on the U.S. military’s launch business.
SpaceX has said the cost of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a military satellite would be well under $100 million, about $280 million less than the average price the Air Force paid for a ULA launch in 2013, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk said at a congressional hearing in March.
The ULA Atlas rocket most similar to a Falcon 9 costs $164 million under its latest Air Force contract, former chief executive Michael Gass told reporters in May.
ULA and SpaceX are expected to go head-to-head for the first time in November bidding for the first of nine military satellite launches.
So far, SpaceX is the only company besides ULA certified to fly military missions.
ULA's non-military missions are exempt from a congressional ban on imports of the Atlas 5 rocket’s Russian-made RD-180 engines.
ULA and Air Force officials had urged lawmakers to relax the ban, enacted last year after Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine, to bridge the gap until a new ULA rocket, built with U.S. engines, is ready to fly.
U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday released a compromise version of the $612 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2016 that would allow ULA to use a total of nine more RD-180 engines to compete for military and spy satellite launch contracts using its Atlas 5 rockets. President Barack Obama on Wednesday said he planned to veto the 2016 defense policy bill.
(Editing by Joe White and Cynthia Osterman)