Rocket Lab is stepping up launches to up to twice a month this year and its first cargo will be for a leading United States military technology agency that says it ''stands shoulder to shoulder with the US warfighter''.

While the company is playing down the military potential of the satellite it is carrying, a strategic studies academic says aligning so closely to a key part of the US defence establishment made this country more vulnerable to America's enemies.

''They would probably see us as much more vulnerable target if they did want to collect information or disrupt things,'' said Terry Johanson, a lecturer at Massey University's centre for defence and security studies.

The New Zealand-founded space company will carry an experimental communications antenna for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which works for the Pentagon.


Rocket Lab hopes to launch the DARPA R3D2 from its Mahia launch pad late next month, after the payload met national interest and security tests under New Zealand law.

Asked whether there could be a military application, founder Peter Beck told the Herald that if there was it would be limited.

''It would be communications - if you wanted to communicate to the ground that's all it is,'' he said.

The DARPA R3D2 satellite Rocket Lab will carry. Photo / Supplied
The DARPA R3D2 satellite Rocket Lab will carry. Photo / Supplied

''There are a lot of dual technologies that can be used in space and this antenna is a great example. While it has a military communication application, there is equal amount of interest in it being used for commercial purposes as well.''

He said it was an ''honour'' to work with the US agency.

"Rapid acquisition of small satellite launch capabilities is increasingly important to US Government organisations like DARPA.''

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The ability to rapidly prove new technology in space and deploy space-based assets with confidence on short notice was a service that didn't exist for dedicated small satellites until now.


"We're honoured to provide Electron's agile and flexible launch service to DARPA and we look forward to delivering the innovative R3D2 payload to orbit."

Much of DARPA's work had both military and civilian applications, notably GPS, a network still owned and operated by the US Air Force.

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The agency had been set up to fight the space race against the USSR after the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and among other technology it had developed included new types of computer chips, voice-recognition software, interactive and personal computers, and the ARPANET and its successor, the internet.

It also pioneered stealth technology used in military aircraft such as the B2 bomber.

Rocket Lab co-founder Peter Beck. Photo / Supplied
Rocket Lab co-founder Peter Beck. Photo / Supplied

On its website it says: ''Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines all are integral to DARPA's day-to-day decisions and long-range research efforts. From GPS satellites to MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) technology, from rockets to the M-16 rifle, DARPA stands shoulder to shoulder with the US warfighter.''

Beck said February's mission would be complex because the cargo was so delicate.

The antenna, made of a tissue-thin membrane, packs tightly inside the 150kg small satellite for stowage during launch, before it unfolds to its full size of 2.25m in diameter once it reaches low-Earth orbit.

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Squeezing it into smaller rockets such as Electron could enable satellite owners to take advantage of volume-limited launch opportunities while still providing significant capability.

DARPA became interested in Rocket Lab before it first launched its Electron rockets with its promise of frequent launches at a comparatively low cost. Rocket Lab has cut the cost of making rockets by using new manufacturing processes and its remote launch site at Mahia is not subject to the same air space restrictions as those of rival rocket operations in the US.

This is increasingly attractive to the United States as it battles to retain dominance in space against other global powers such as Russia and China.

The Trump Administration hopes to have a dedicated ''Space Force'' up and running by as early as 2020, vice president Michael Pence last year described space as ''a war-fighting domain''.

In a request for around US$250 million in funding last year, DARPA said there were opportunities to dramatically reduce costs associated with advanced space systems and provide revolutionary new system capabilities for satisfying current and projected military missions.

''A Space Force structure that is robust against attack represents a stabilising deterrent against adversary attacks on space assets. The keys to a secure space environment are situational awareness to detect and characterise potential threats, a proliferation of assets to provide robustness against attack, ready access to space, and a flexible infrastructure for maintaining the capabilities of on-orbit assets.''

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The declassified document said ready access to space required the delivery of capabilities, replenishment of supplies into orbit, and rapid manufacturing of affordable space capabilities.

Beck played down concern that opponents of America could see New Zealand as a target if it identified with the US space programme or defence programme.

Beck said there was no suggestion this country could be a target.

''I really don't see how it can. This is a technology demonstrator and there are lots of organisations in NZ that work closely with the US,'' he said.

The payload had been approved by authorities in the US and in this country - the Space Agency - and the New Zealand government.

''In order to fly any of these missions it goes through a multi-step process. Then it comes through the tests as to whether its in the national interests of the country, is it something we want to align with or something we don't want to align ourselves to.''

Following three successful launches to orbit, Rocket Lab hopes to launch once a month from the start of this year, building up to as often as once a fortnight at the end of the year. Its workforce in this country and the US, where it is registered, had grown to more than 400.

Rocket Lab has taxpayer support and can draw on public funding from Callaghan Innovation.

The New Zealand Space Agency is part of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment and says DARPA's payload was approved just before Christmas.

General manager of science, innovation and international Peter Crabtree said all payloads launched from New Zealand needed the approval of economic development minister David Parker.

Before granting a permit, the minister must be satisfied that the requirements in the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act are met, including that:

• The payload will be operated safely and meet New Zealand's requirements on orbital debris mitigation.

• The proposed operation of the payload is consistent with New Zealand's international obligations.

• Its operations do not pose a risk to national security.

• Its operations are not contrary to New Zealand's national interests.

The minister can decline a payload permit if the proposed activity of the payload is contrary to New Zealand's national interests or security.

''In the case of DARPA's R3D2 payload, the New Zealand Space Agency and the minister are satisfied that the proposed activity meets the tests in the act,'' said Crabtree.