The U.S. Air Force has reviewed the candidates for the Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 contract and determined that all bidders will be eligible to compete, according to Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The “competitive range” review took place last week, she says. Air Force officials declined to say how many bidders have offered options for the OSP-3 contract.

The contract will likely be awarded by year-end, which will allow time for winners to compete for Minotaur-class launchers. The latter would also will include options for new entrants into the launch market.

SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences Corp. and ATK are all in the mix. United Launch Alliance (ULA), which operates a monopoly in the U.S. on large launchers, is not allowed to bid, as this program is being set aside for new entrants. ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, manufactures the Atlas V and Delta family of vehicles.

The Air Force plans to select winners by year-end, which will allow for them to compete for specific launches at a later time.

Potential new entrants, some of which have launch vehicles that are in various stages of development, were required to submit a letter outlining plans for their new vehicle’s readiness along with their bid. The strategy is for the Air Force to allow for these new entrants to assume authority for missions, such as scientific payloads, that can allow for more risk.

This would help those new entrants to attain certification and, potentially, compete with ULA in the future for launch missions.