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Review of Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act space law causes outrage

The New Zealand Space Agency denies residents were stopped from airing their views about a review of the laws surrounding rocket launches from Mahia.

United States-based space company Rocket Lab has been launching payloads into orbit for the past five year from its launch complex at Onenui Station.

The law (Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act) governing what payloads are permitted is now under review but Nuhaka resident and Rongomaiwahine iwi member Sonya Smith said Mahia residents and mana whenua were “outraged” the review excluded them while including Rocket Lab representatives.

“The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment quietly announced a review of the Outer Space and High Altitude Activities Act in August and closed it a few weeks later, having only consulted with other government agencies and certain companies involved in the industry,” she said.

Some Mahia residents were opposed to Rocket Lab launching payloads for the US military.

“Launching rockets for US military contractors or the US Space Force damages our reputation globally as a country that works to create and maintain peace,” said Ms Smith.

However, New Zealand Space Agency acting head Paul Stocks said the review was publicly announced on August 17 and the full terms of reference, as well as an email address, were available on the MBIE website to view and submit feedback.

“These submissions closed on September 28, 2021,” he said.

MBIE also targeted for consultation those who have engaged with the licensing and permitting processes, by engaging by email with agencies involved in administering the licensing and permitting processes, industry stakeholders who have applied or may apply for licences or permits and other engaged stakeholders such as providers of ground station facilities.

Onenui Station, where Rocket Lab's launch complex is located, is owned by Maori entity Tawapata South Incorporation.

“The Outer Space and High-altitude Act 2017 (review) is a technical and operational review, which will assess the performance of the act against its objectives and consider how it might be improved operationally,” Mr Stocks said.

The review, led by MBIE, will consider the operation and effectiveness of the Act.

Also under consideration will be whether the provisions of the Act should be retained or repealed, and whether any further amendments to the Act are necessary or desirable.

A separate public consultation will begin later this year on space policy settings more broadly. It will include considering the peaceful, sustainable and responsible uses of space and what that means for space activity from New Zealand.

If people want to make submissions on these topics, the details around the public consultation on the space policy review will be announced later in the year.

Green Party security and intelligence spokesperson Teanau Tuiono said it was concerning mana whenua “continue to be left out” of the technical review of the outer space legislation.

“Especially since military payloads are being launched on Mahia whenua.”

The party was also “deeply concerned” space launches by Rocket Lab might be breaching nuclear-free laws.

“New Zealand's historic nuclear-free stance and strong commitment to non-proliferation are critical to our independent foreign policy, which we must not compromise in the name of economic development.”

Those claims were based on two letters of concern sent to Cabinet from the Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament Control.

Those concerns have been dismissed by Attorney-General David Parker, who wrote to the committee stating nothing in the letters had raised any concerns.

On that claim, Mr Stokes told The Gisborne Herald New Zealand's Technology Safeguard Agreement with the US mandated that “the United States Government provide the Government of New Zealand with a written statement of the function of each US spacecraft with sufficient information to enable the Government of New Zealand to determine whether a launch would be consistent with the laws, regulations and policies of New Zealand”.

“This legally binding international treaty ensures that New Zealand possesses full information to make a determination on any US payload's consistency with New Zealand law, national security and national interest.

“Any payload permit application that the minister approves, regardless of the applicant, must comply with the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 and other relevant New Zealand legislation, including the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987.

“Each payload permit application is also assessed for consistency with New Zealand's international obligations, including those covering nuclear non-proliferation.”

Payload types not permitted comprised those that contribute to nuclear weapons programmes or capabilities, payloads with the intended end use of harming, interfering with or destroying other spacecraft, or space systems on Earth, those with the intended end use of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy, and payloads where the intended end use is likely to cause serious or irreversible harm to the environment.

Rocket Lab communications manager Morgan Bailey told The Herald no satellites launched by Rocket Lab had contributed to nuclear devices or capabilities.

“We have been clear on that from day one and it remains true today.

“Separate to Rocket Lab's own commitments, the law is very clear about what can and cannot be launched from New Zealand. Any satellite that contributes to nuclear weapons or capabilities simply cannot be launched and Rocket Lab absolutely supports this.

“All satellites launched from New Zealand undergo a strict permitting process under the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act.

“All satellites are subject to assessments against a number of criteria including meeting New Zealand's international obligations, nuclear non-proliferation, safe operation, orbital debris mitigation and national interest and security.

“As part of that permitting process, extensive information about the satellite and what it's used for must be provided to the New Zealand Government.

“A Technology Safeguards Agreement between the US and New Zealand reinforces this and ensures that the US Government provides all information the New Zealand Government requires.

“To date, all satellites have met the Government's stringent permitting requirements and have been approved for launch.”

SATELLITE SITE: Rocket Lab's Mahia launch facility. Picture supplied

  1. Manu Caddie says:

    More disinformation from Rocket Lab’s PR manager who claims the company is not contributing to US nuclear weapons capabilities.
    US General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, very clearly explained in an interview last year that the Joint All Domain Command and Control system (JADC2) is based on seamless coordination across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace and he explicitly said this includes nuclear and conventional weapons systems. The weapons targeting technology Rocket Lab is launching from Mahia is a key component in the JADC2 strategy.
    New Zealand officials along with Minister Stuart Nash continue to turn a blind eye in signing off launch permits. These permits not only breach Nuclear Free New Zealand legislation but also treaties and agreements New Zealand has signed committing to the peaceful use of space. As General John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, US Space Force recently acknowledged “Space is a war fighting domain, just like air, land and sea.”
    The Labour-led Government is permitting Rocket Lab to launch missile targeting technology from Mahia and it needs to be stopped.