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SpaceX’s launch last week of a rocket carrying a batch of satellites into low-earth orbit caps a record year for the closely held company led by Elon Musk. The mission from California’s central coast was Space Exploration Technologies Corp’s 18th this year. That’s more than any competitor and far exceeds the eight it launched in 2016 before a September explosion grounded the company for the rest of the year while an investigation took place. “SpaceX has had a phenomenal year, and they’ve motivated and inspired a lot of people as to what is possible,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group for the private space sector. The coming year is expected to be even bigger. With three launch pads now at their disposal after repairing the one damaged in the September 2016 blast, Musk and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell have said they expect to fly roughly 30 missions in 2018. That tally will include several missions for commercial satellite operators, military customers and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration using the Falcon 9 rocket but also a planned expansion to include a larger rocket and crewed missions. Next year “will be the biggest year in the space industry since 1969,” Stallmer said, referring to NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the Moon.
The maiden flight of Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s bigger and more powerful rocket that will let it compete for heavier US military payloads, is slated for January. SpaceX is also expected next year to demonstrate the Crew Dragon spacecraft it plans to use to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. “If you liked tonight’s launch, you will really like Falcon Heavy next month,” Musk wrote on Twitter early Saturday. Friday’s mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — which carried 10 satellites into orbit — reused the rocket booster captured after an earlier Iridium launch in June. The launch at dusk created some spectacular imaging in the sky that had some California residents wondering on Twitter if they were seeing a UFO. Musk played along, tweeting that the jellyfish-like shape was a “nuclear alien UFO from North Korea.”