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U.S. private space companies plan surge in launches this year

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb 3 (Reuters) - U.S. private space companies Space Exploration Technologies and United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing N>, have scheduled more than 30 launches from Florida this year, up from 18 last year, according to company and Air Force officials.

The jump in planned launches reflects increasing demand for commercial communications and imaging satellites, as well as business from the U.S. military, International Space Station cargo ships and a NASA asteroid sample return mission. SpaceX and ULA fly from pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of NASA's spaceport.

"We want to be able to fly every week, for sure, if not multiple times in a week," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at a webcast commercial space conference in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

The launch rate is expected to continue to climb as new companies, including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, enters the market later this decade. The launch services industry generated global revenues of $5.9 billion in 2014, according to a report last year by the Satellite Industry Association.

The first launch from Florida this year is slated for Friday when a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket blasts off to put a Boeing-built Global Positioning System satellite into orbit for the Air Force.

"The last time we saw 30-plus launches would have been back in the 1960s," said business strategist Dale Ketcham with the state-backed Space Florida economic development agency.

The missions include an air-launched Pegasus rocket, owned by Orbital ATK, which will carry a NASA Earth sciences satellite.

SpaceX and United Launch Alliance also have launch pads at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Orbital ATK is preparing its revamped Antares rocket for launch this year from the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. Antares has been grounded since an October 2014 accident.

Florida is working to expand its aerospace business from launches to manufacturing and ultimately into research and development, Ketcham said.

The state is vying to land a satellite manufacturing facility for startup OneWeb LLC, based in Britain's Channel Islands, which intends to fly a constellation of 720 small satellites to provide broadband Internet services worldwide.

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)