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Payload disquiet

‘There are some very big moral questions at stake’

Concerned New Zealanders and organisations have called on the Prime Minister to immediately suspend Rocket lab launches that include military payloads as these may breach the country’s nuclear-free legislation.

But Rocket Lab says none of the satellites it has launched have any nuclear capabilities. “Rocket Lab will also not launch weapons,” said Morgan Bailey, head of communications for the space company.

An open letter to the PM outlining concerns refers in particular to the planned Rocket Lab launch of the Gunsmoke-J payload on March 15.

The letter’s demands are supported by civic, peace and religious organisations as well as residents near Mahia — the site of Rocket Lab’s launch pad — and further afield.

The letter was first sent to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week by The Peace Foundation’s International Affairs and disarmament committee.

It has since attracted widespread support from those concerned about Rocket Lab’s strong links with the US military and nuclear weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The letter says Gunsmoke-J could breach the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987 and the Cabinet-approved definition from 2019 of payloads that Stuart Nash, the Minister in charge of approving the launches, should reject because they are contrary to New Zealand’s national interest.

Supporters of the letter want the Government to immediately rescind the Gunsmoke-J permit, pending a full review of space-launch regulations in concert with the government-mandated review this year of the Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities (OSHA) Act 2017.

The letter asks the Government to —

1. Remove the “abrogation of NZ sovereignty” in the NZ-US Technology Safeguards Agreement 2016, which gives the US government veto rights over NZ space launch activity.

2. Assign oversight for space launch activities to the Prime Minister in keeping with the Nuclear Free Zone Act.

3. Strengthen regulations so the Government can ensure payloads will comply with the Nuclear Free Zone Act across their full operational lifetime.

4. Mandate oversight by the public advisory committee on disarmament and arms control of space-launch activity and embed these strengthened regulations into a revised OSHA Act.

“Rocket Lab’s launch programmes is increasingly opaque,” says Professor Kevin Clements, Emeritus Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, and director of the Toda Peace Institute in Japan.

“The precise content of each payload seems intentionally ambiguous and approvals do not seem to take New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation into account,” he said.

It was “astonishing” Minister Nash had said he was unaware of the specific military capabilities of the Gunsmoke-J satellite.

'Robust oversight'

“It is even worse that he is willing to rely on the US Army alone to provide the information required by him and New Zealand’s space agency in relation to the approval process. There are some very big moral questions at stake here.

“Is this current Labour Government willing for New Zealand soil to be used by Rocket Lab in order to assist US government targeting in conventional and nuclear warfare?”

Academic Dr Tania Ogilvie-White said: “Activities at Rocket Lab’s NZ site, near Gisborne, make the complex look increasingly like a joint USNZ military facility.”

Dr Ogilvie-White is director of the New Zealand Centre For Global Studies and Senior Fellow at the Australian National University.

She said the planned launch of Gunsmoke-J was particularly “troubling”.

“I question why this satellite, which is developing technology intended for use in future warfare, wasn’t launched last month from Rocket Lab’s US launch site in Virginia.

“We need more transparency around Rocket Lab’s NZ activities, including civilian oversight, given the potentially serious implications for NZ security,” Dr Ogilvie-White said.

The Gunsmoke-J payload is from the US Army’s Space and Missile Defence Command and its rideshare slot on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket was procured by launch integration and mission management company TriSept.

Gunsmoke-J is an experimental 3U CubeSat that will test technologies that support development of new capabilities for the US Army, a Rocket Lab press release said.

“Aside from Rocket Lab’s own commitments, space is a heavily regulated activity in New Zealand,” said Rocket Lab communications head Morgan Bailey. “We have one of the most stringent regulatory regimes in the world for payload permitting.

“This robust oversight ensures space activity in New Zealand operates safely and securely and preserves New Zealand’s national interests.”

With regard to the Gunsmoke-J payload specifically, like all other Rocket Lab payloads to date it does not contribute to nuclear capability, Ms Bailey said.

“It is a small satellite about the size of a loaf of bread designed to test communication technologies for a division of the US Army.

“It is a test satellite only — it is not operational. The US Army division responsible for this small satellite, known as the SMDC, provides satellite services relied upon by New Zealand and Australia.

“In response to the devastating wildfire crisis in Australia in early 2020, SMDC enabled Australian and New Zealand defence forces to use the SMDC satellite network to communicate and coordinate response efforts on the ground to keep fire crews and those affected by the blazes safe.

“With regard to Lockheed Martin’s shareholding in Rocket Lab, I can confirm that Lockheed Martin’s shareholding is less than a few percent of Rocket Lab — it is a passive minority shareholder.

“Significant Rocket Lab investors include venture capital firms, along with ACC and the Australian Sovereign Wealth Fund.”

All payloads launched from New Zealand must apply for a payload permit under the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017. The Act aligns with the Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987.

In order for the Minister to approve a payload permit, he must be satisfied that the applicant meets the threshold tests in the Act. Specifically, payloads must be consistent with New Zealand’s obligations in relation to:

The United Nations Charter

International Humanitarian Law;

International Human Rights Law;

International obligations and commitments relating to the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

As part of the payload permitting process, all satellite customers must disclose to the NZ government details of their mission, the purpose of the satellite, a description of the ultimate objectives of putting the satellite in space, and a description of how the satellite being launched contributes to those objectives.

The payload permit also requires the disclosure of the satellite’s capabilities, including its structure; how it’s powered; how it communicates and is able to be tracked in space; and any other subsystems included.

New Zealand and the United States have also signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement which reinforces commitment to cooperation and ensures that US government agencies provide all information that regulators require.

These requirements ensure that the NZ government has in-depth insight into each and every satellite that applies for the ability to launch from NZ.

The Government will not allow a launch from New Zealand — no matter the customer — if their spacecraft does any one of these things:

•contributes to nuclear weapons programmes or capabilities,

•has the intended end use of harming, interfering with, or destroying other spacecraft, or systems on Earth

•has the intended end use of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy

•has the intended end use likely to cause serious or irreversible harm to the environment.

“To date, all payloads launched from New Zealand have met these stringent requirements and been approved for launch,” Ms Bailey said.

LIFT-OFF: An early launch from the Rocket Lab site on Mahia Peninsula. Picture by Rocket Lab

  1. Mary Rose, Tauranga says:

    Good on those who are speaking up about this developing industry.
    Even if all the spokeswoman says is true, it is much too easy for US interests to sweep NZ concerns aside. I appreciate your efforts.