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Last SpaceX launch of the year sends a spy satellite to space

Elon Musk's rocket company sent a package to orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, just in time for the holidays.

SpaceX this year sent astronauts to orbit for its first time and saw the explosive debut of its latest Starship prototype. But it wrapped up its mission manifest for 2020 with a fairly routine launch Saturday morning.

A Falcon 9 rocket lifted a new spy satellite to space for the US National Reconnaissance Office from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was initially set to take place Thursday morning, but some irregular pressure readings triggered an auto-abort and pushed back the launch, first to Friday, and then later to Saturday.

The rocket blasted off right at the beginning of a three-hour launch window, at 6 a.m. PT (9 a.m. ET).

This classified national security mission is designated NROL-108 and is the sixth launch in 2020 from the National Reconnaissance Office. Like most other NRO launches, this one has a somewhat cryptic poster and slogan, in the form of a cartoon gorilla beating its chest, alongside the phrase "peace through strength."

"Gorillas are peaceful animals but can be fierce when necessary," the NRO tweeted. "Like the gorilla, our #NROL108 mission is constantly vigilant and ready to defend its own."

A recent NRO mission, launched aboard a United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket on Nov. 13, featured a mysterious Lord of the Rings theme, including some elvish script.

"I think we just have some Lord of the Rings fans," an NRO spokesperson later told me via email.

The first-stage booster of the Falcon 9 successfully returned to Earth, landing ashore at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station about eight minutes after launch.

SpaceX should start the new year with a flurry of activity in January, including the next Starlink launch and at least two other satellite launch missions slated for the first month of 2021.