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By Irene Klotz
(Reuters) - Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies was selected to launch a trio of Canadian radar satellites aboard a single Falcon 9 rocket, the company announced on Tuesday.
The California-based firm, also known as SpaceX, already is flying NASA cargo to the International Space Station, a permanently staffed research outpost that flies about 250 miles above Earth.
Owned and operated by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, the company is also working on a space taxi to fly astronauts to the orbital outpost.
A relative newcomer to the U.S. launch industry, SpaceX's client roster includes communication satellite operators Iridium, Intelsat SA, Orbcomm, Europe's SES, Hong Kong's Asia Satellite Telecommunications and Israel's Space Communication Ltd.
Also on SpaceX's launch manifest are spacecraft for the U.S. Air Force, NASA's science office and the governments of Thailand, Argentina and Taiwan.
"Our tally is nearly 50 launches," SpaceX spokeswoman Christina Ra wrote in an email to Reuters.
So far, the company has flown its Falcon 9 rocket five times, all from its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch site in Florida. The missions include two test flights and two space station cargo runs for the U.S. space agency, which contributed about $400 million toward the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule development.
SpaceX's 12-flight cargo delivery contract with NASA is worth another $1.6 billion. NASA also has a separate $525 million investment in SpaceX to upgrade its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to carry people.
SpaceX's next mission, slated for September, will be to launch a Canadian Space Agency solar science satellite called CASSIOPE from a new launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Both CASSIOPE and the three-radar satellite now included in SpaceX's manifest are built by Canada's MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd, which selected SpaceX for the launches.
"SpaceX appreciates MDA's confidence in our ability to safely and reliably transport their satellites," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement.
The radar satellite network, which is slated to fly in 2018, is designed for maritime surveillance, disaster management and environmental monitoring.
Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but SpaceX's website lists the cost of a Falcon 9 rocket at $56.5 million.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz in Capre Canaveral, Florida; Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)