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U.S. Senate panel backs plan for alternative to Russian rocket engine

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved a plan that would add $100 million to the U.S. military budget to start work on a new U.S. rocket engine and eliminate reliance on a Russian-made engine used to lift big government satellites into orbit.

The House Armed Services Committee included a similar provision in its defense authorization bill earlier this month.

Tensions with Russia have sparked growing concerns about the use of Russian-made RD-180 engines by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp that is responsible for launching U.S. military and spy satellites into space.

ULA uses the Russian-made engines in one type of rocket, the Atlas, but not in another, the Delta.

A high-ranking Russian official recently threatened to end sales of the Russian rocket engines for U.S. military use in response to western sanctions imposed after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, introduced the measure to increase funding as an amendment to the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill, arguing that it was important to ensure U.S. access to space for its astronauts and military satellites.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp, has said it is potentially interested in bidding for the work.

Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning this week told a space conference in Colorado that the Air Force was exploring its options given the fragility of relations with Russia amid tensions over its annexation of Crimea.

Fanning said the Air Force was looking at longer-term options, including building an alternative engine, either on its own or through a public-private partnership. He said the Air Force was also working to certifying other rocket launch providers and could increase use of ULA's Delta rockets.

Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp and the former owner of Rocketdyne, has a license to co-produce the Russian rocket, but U.S. officials have said that co-production would still leave the U.S. government dependent on Russia to some extent.

Experts estimate it would cost around $1 billion and five years to develop a new U.S. rocket engine.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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