By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies won a two-flight contract to launch a radar satellite network for Germany, the company announced on Thursday.
German satellite manufacturers OHB-System AG and Astrium GmbH selected the California-based firm, also known as SpaceX, to launch a trio of spacecraft that comprise a radar reconnaissance network for Germany's defense department.
The OHB-System's two smaller radar satellites will ride together aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, while Astrium's larger spacecraft will solo on a second Falcon booster. The launches are targeted for 2018 and 2019.
The contract award is SpaceX's first for a European government.
"We appreciate their confidence in SpaceX to reliably deliver these satellites to orbit," SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement.
The three-satellite constellation will replace a current OHB-built, five-satellite orbital network.
The new contracts boost SpaceX's launch manifest to more than 50 missions. The company's Falcon 9 rocket so far has flown five times - all successfully - including three missions to launch cargo capsules to the International Space Station for NASA.
The privately owned firm, founded and operated by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, also is competing to provide flight services for NASA astronauts to and from the station, a permanently staffed research outpost that flies about 250 miles above Earth.
The company's customers also include the U.S. military, Canada, Thailand, Argentina, Taiwan and several commercially owned and operated communication satellite operators including Iridium, Intelsat SA, Orbcomm, Europe's SES, Hong Kong's Asia Satellite Telecommunications and Israel's Space Communication Ltd.
SpaceX currently flies from a leased and renovated launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The firm plans its debut launch from a second pad at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on September 5.
The company also wants to take over maintenance and operations of a moth-balled space shuttle launch pad in Florida and is looking for a fourth launch site that would be commercially owned and operated.
NASA also received a bid from privately owned Blue Origin, a Kent, Washington-based startup owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, for the shuttle's launch pad. Blue Origin is proposing to operate the pad as a multi-use facility for launching its own, as well as its competitors' rockets.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Sandra Maler)