22 Jan 2020

Rocket Lab's first launch of 2020 to be for US military agency

4:49 pm on 22 January 2020

Rocket Lab's next launch will be for a American military agency, responsible for US intelligence satellites.

This June 16, 2018 courtesy of Rocket Lab shows the launch site for an Electron rocket at Rocket Lab in Mahia, New Zealand.

The launch site for an Electron rocket at Rocket Lab on June 16, 2018. Photo: Kieran Fanning / Rocket Lab / AFP

The launch window for the mission "Birds of a Feather" is scheduled for 31 January, lifting off from Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula.

The mission is for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a defence agency touting itself as providing "eyes and ears" for the US in "critical places no humans can reach".

It was established in the 1960s but its existence only became declassified in 1992.

Rocket Lab said the mission would demonstrate its "unique capability to provide frequent and rapidly-acquired launch opportunities for US government small satellite missions".

"The Electron launch vehicle is perfectly positioned to provide the kind of rapid and responsive access to space that puts the NRO in complete control over their own launch schedule and orbital requirements", said senior vice president of global launch services, Lars Hoffman, in a statement.

"As the industry shifts toward the disaggregation of large, geostationary spacecraft, Electron enables unprecedented access to space to support a resilient layer of government small satellite infrastructure".

This is the 11th launch mission for Rocket Lab; previous missions have been for US agencies including NASA, the Air Force, Special Operations Command and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency within the Department of Defense creating "breakthrough technologies and capabilities for national security.

Other payloads have included a demonstration of a student-built robotic space arm, providing "internet-of-things communications", artificial meteor shower displays, commercial ship tracking, and deploying replacement satellites for Earth imaging constellations.

The New Zealand government passed legislation in 2017 setting up a regulatory system for space activities, which includes specific rules for the kinds of launches that can be undertaken.

That law implemented "certain international obligations of New Zealand relating to space activities and space technology", and was aimed at preserving the country's "national security and national interests".

Each launch requires a licence and ministerial sign-off.

The New Zealand law cites the commitments under the Outer Space Treaty not to allow any launch "carrying nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction", or to "install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner".

Also prohibited is the establishment of "military bases, installations, or fortifications on celestial bodies".

No caption

Minister of Economic Development Phil Twyford. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

In December last year, Minister of Economic Development Phil Twyford took a paper to Cabinet to "clarify the government's policy on launching defence, security and intelligence payloads of other countries".

The paper said as minister, he wanted to make sure any decisions he made reflected "broader government policy and the wide variety of New Zealand interests at play, while managing the potential risks".

There were activities that would either be in New Zealand's national interests, or not.

Those falling into the latter category included:

  • payloads that contribute to nuclear weapons programmes or capabilities,
  • payloads with the intended end use of harming, interfering with, or destroying other spacecraft, or systems on Earth,
  • payloads with the intended end use of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy,
  • payloads where the intended end use is likely to cause serious or irreversible harm to the environment.

Twyford said in the Cabinet paper he would not authorise payloads in the above circumstances, and as such sought Cabinet approval to confirm such activities would not be in the national interest.

Greens want New Zealand's interests protected to avoid war crimes

The Greens still want the government to take a tougher line on the launch of payloads for overseas military or intelligence agencies, saying there's a major risk New Zealand's national interests could be compromised.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman said those decisions should be made with an "independent principled voice" and the government should be asking its allies and how exactly the information would be used.

The current law laid out "guidelines" but she said they should be toughened.

"Where we talk about surveillance domestically there's much higher standards and there's judicial oversight, that then surveillance bodies like the police would then have to show they've complied with - there isn't that kind of oversight in the international sphere."

No caption

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

At the moment she said, the US President has made comments about targeting cultural sites in Iran, which Ghahraman said would constitute war crimes.

The Greens position was New Zealand's interests should be taken into account "with reference to things like international peace and security".

The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 should lay in out in much more detail New Zealand's obligation in terms of international law, and take account of individual privacy considerations, Ghahraman said.

MBIE general manager for science, innovation and international Peter Crabtree said the data collected by the NRO was used to "inform decision making by national policymakers and military and civil users in the US and in US partner nations, including New Zealand".

Accordingly, the payload was classified, meaning the New Zealand government could not comment on its intended end-use, as that information was protected, he said.

There were a number of steps in the approval process, Crabtree said, including having to be consistent with new principles introduced last year and the NRO payload had met all of those requirements.

"This is a rigorous process that can involve multiple government agencies involved in the regulation of space-related activity", he said.

"New Zealand has a deep and long-standing security relationship with the US Government and a history of collaboration across a range of issues.

"We also have a high level of trust in place, supported by the Technology Safeguards Agreement."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs