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Live long and prosper. Vulcan space rockets are set to blast off in four years' time – not built by the Star Trek aliens, but by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

ULA currently launches NASA and other spacecraft on its Atlas and Delta rockets, but last night announced a new rocket, named Vulcan after a public vote. The firm is aiming for its first launch in 2019, at a cost of $100 million per flight.

The launch system could be powered by engines developed by Blue Origin, the rocket firm founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. ULA's current rockets rely on Russian-made RD-180 engines, which has become politically untenable due to a hardening of the relationship between the US and Russia following the invasion of Crimea. Alternatively, Vulcan will use engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which also built engines for the now retired space shuttle.

ULA will choose which engines to use next year, but it is also thinking carefully about how to get the most bang for its buck. The firm plans for Vulcan to eject its engines after launch, then have them deploy parachutes and be caught in mid-air by a nearby helicopter. Returning them safely to land for reuse would lower the overall cost of space flight. NASA attempted something similar with a returning space probe in 2004, but failed to catch it, leading to a crash landing.

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