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U.S. Air Force awards rocket engine development contracts

WASHINGTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Monday awarded contracts worth more than $160 million to two separate firms involved in the development of a new rocket engine to help the United States end its dependence on Russian rocket engines for national security space launches.

The Air Force awarded a $115 million contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, California, for the development of the AR1 rocket propulsion system prototype.

It awarded a $46.6 million contract to a subsidiary of United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, for the development of the Vulcan BE-4 and Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage rocket propulsion system prototypes.

The two firms are part of a public-private partnership to jointly develop the AR1 engine, Aerojet said in a statement. It said the total value of the deal is valued at $804 million, with the Air Force providing two-thirds of the funding required to complete the AR1 by 2019.

A Pentagon statement said the two contracts implement a 2015 law that requires the development of a next-generation rocket propulsion system to end the U.S. military's dependence on the Russian-supplied RD-180 rocket engine.

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, buys RD-180 engines for its Atlas 5 rockets from RD-AMROSS, which is a U.S.-based joint venture of Energomash, a Russian firm, and Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Alan Crosby)