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‘No specifics’ about next Rocket Lab launch for US Govt agency

The New Zealand Space Agency will neither confirm nor deny if a “classified” United States government satellite due to be launched from Mahia is intended as a “spy satellite” for the military.

On the two-year anniversary of its first rocket launch, United Stated-based company Rocket Lab yesterday said it would launch a payload into orbit for the United State's National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The launch window is scheduled to open on January 31 and the mission, called Birds of a Feather, will lift off from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 at Mahia.

Rocket Lab global launch services senior vice president Lars Hoffman said the Electron launch vehicle was uniquely placed to deliver the kind of frequent, rapidly-acquired launch opportunities required by the NRO and other government agencies to ensure resiliency in space.

“We are honoured the NRO has selected Rocket Lab as the launch provider for this dedicated mission. 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.”

The NRO does not publicly disclose specific programmes or satellite capabilities due to national security requirements. However, all payload applicants seeking to launch from New Zealand are required to declare the mission and purpose of their payloads to the New Zealand Space Agency for assessment under the Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Act.

“This process is managed directly between the payload provider, the New Zealand Space Agency, and other relevant regulatory agencies,” a Rocket Lab spokeswoman told The Gisborne Herald.

“To be approved, all payloads need to meet a series of tests under the Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Act to ensure public safety, minimise the potential to create orbital debris and be consistent with international obligations, our national security and wider national interest. This is a rigorous process that can involve multiple government agencies involved in the regulation of space-related activity.

“In addition, one of the stated purposes of the Act is to implement New Zealand's obligations (in the Outer Space Treaty) not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

“Rocket Lab is committed to countering the proliferation of weapons. This is governed by the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), a bilateral agreement between the New Zealand and United States Governments.”

Rocket Lab was committed to the safe, peaceful and responsible use of space, the spokeswoman said.

“Rocket Lab will not launch weapons, nor will it launch payloads that are contrary to national security interests.

“All payloads launched from New Zealand must be approved by the Minister for Economic Development. Detailed information about the payload owner, and the payload's purpose and function, is always provided to the New Zealand Space Agency as part of the payload permitting process. Rocket Lab simply cannot launch without this approval.”

The Minister for Economic Development approved the payload permit application last year, said Dr Peter Crabtree, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment science, innovation and international general manager.

“The payload customer is the National Reconnaissance Office — a US government agency responsible for developing, acquiring, launching and operating signals, imagery, and communications satellites.

“NRO data is used to inform decision making by national policymakers and military and civil users in the US and in US partner nations, including New Zealand.

“The NROL-151 is a classified payload intended to support these responsibilities. The Government cannot comment on the intended end use of the payload because this information is protected.

“In addition to the tests under the Outer Space and High Altitude Activities Act, the Government recently introduced four policy principles to guide the assessment of national interest when considering payload permit applications. These principles are safety, responsibility, sustainability and alignment with New Zealand's values, policies, interests and laws.

Under those principles, payloads that contribute to nuclear weapons programmes or capabilities, have an intended end use of harming, interfering with, or destroying other spacecraft, or systems on Earth, or are capable of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy, or are likely to cause serious or irreversible harm to the environment would not be considered in the national interest, and therefore would not be approved for launch.

“All previously approved payloads — including NROL-151 — are consistent with these principles,” said Dr Crabtree.

“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.”

FLYING: Rocket Lab have dubbed the company's next launch Birds of a Feather. A window for the launch is scheduled to open on January 31. Rocket Lab picture