Rocket Lab's seventh Electron launch, scheduled for next Thursday, will have weather and education satellites on its manifest and, more mysteriously, two Prometheus CubeSats for US military agency Socom.
Rocket Lab doesn't want to talk about the Socom payload citing commercial sensitivity (although founder Peter Beck was willing to say it was a reasearch project rather than operational).
And neither will the three-year-old New Zealand Space Agency, which sits within MBIE - although NZSA head Peter Crabtree has said there is a non-negotiable full disclosure to his agency, even if it won't necessarily share details with the public.
Crabtree did tell the Herald, "The New Zealand Space Agency can confirm that the Prometheus CubeSat payloads operated by the United States Special Operations Command have satisfied the tests set out in the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 and have been granted permission to launch from New Zealand by the Minister for Economic Development David Parker.
"These tests are designed to ensure public safety, minimise the potential to create orbital debris, and ensure activity is consistent with New Zealand's international obligations, national security, and wider national interest."
Crabtree said as well as various physical safety criteria, a "national interest" best was applied to each satellite payload permitted by his agency. MFAT and various defence and security agencies were routinely consulted as part of the process, with the minister having the final say.
A former adviser to the Pentagon was willing to discuss the Prometheus project in more detail.
Before we get to that, however, let's take a step back.
What is Socom?
The US Department says, "The command was formed after the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, a mission to rescue the American hostages in Tehran, Iran, in April 1980. Eight American special operations personnel died in the effort. A study faulted a lack of co-operation among the forces. This led to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1987 and, on April 16, 1987, the establishment of Socom.
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"The military services man, train and equip their own special operations forces, but when they are used together, they come under the purview of Socom."
Socom's website details its involvement in the1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia and says its "Special operators were among the first US forces in Afghanistan after 9/11."
International security consultant Dr Paul Buchanan - a former analyst for the US Secretary of Defence advising the Pentagon before coming to NZ to lecture at Auckland University - says Special Ops are more than likely on high alert after a US drone was downed just a few km from the coast of Iran last week amid already heightened tension.
"That's because the response has to be measured, proportional and commensurate with the attack. The key is to deliver a message without escalating. Use of air assets to eliminate Iranian air defence systems would be an escalation, and pretty much any naval response would be risky, given likely Iranian reactions. So the [Special Operators] option will have to involve stealth and low profile/small footprint measures."
So what are the Prometheus CubeSats?
Buchanan told the Herald they will likely be used for "tactical geospatial mapping with advanced secure communications for special operators".
The idea is that Special Ops troops in the field could use Prometheus for "over-the-horizon" communications with partner forces and to keep real-time tabs on the location of both friend and foe.
"Otherwise they would be reliant on line-of-sight, short-distance comms that can be impacted by things like mountains, ravines and dense jungle. This seems to fix positions and allow tactical real-time comms regardless of terrain. That is helpful in many ways, including defensive as well as offensive operations," Buchanan said.
The idea of satellite comms is nothing new, of course, but there's a transition from a few big birds to a possible constellation of hundreds or even thousands of loaf-of-bread-size CubeSats under the so-called Agile Space Program.
The Promethus CubeSats are "demonstrating the capability to transfer audio, video, and encrypted data files from man-portable, low-profile, remotely located field units, to deployable ground terminals," according to the best description Buchanan can find.
The first Prometheus units were tested in 2013, with another batch launched in 2015. Prometheus seems to be a work in progress, with the programme designed to access different CubeSat technologies, and the cost and ultility of different approaches.
Beck plays down payload
Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck played down the payload in an interview with the Herald, saying, "There's some research spacecraft in there. So they're fundamentally trying to understand how small spacecraft can be utilised."
There will be no Socom staff in NZ for the launch. Security at Rocket Lab's HQ was typically tight when the Herald visited (cellphones are taken at the door, and all visitors are escorted at all times) but no tighter than previous visits.
The Auckland-LA company's ties to the US military are long-standing.
It was a key moment in Rocket Lab's history when its fuel handling technology drew the attention of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or Darpa – the US Department of Defense Agency whose mission is to "to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security". Contract work for Darpa followed.
US military and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin bought into Rocket Lab in 2014 (the privately-held company has not disclosed the size of its various backers holdings).
In March this year, Rocket Lab launched small, experimental satellites for Darpa in its first flight booked out by a single client.
And in May, Rocket Lab launched three small satellites into orbit for the US Air Force.
At the time, Beck emphasised the USAF satellites, were "non-operational payloads, they're R&D research payloads".
One was the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE), sponsored by the US Air Force Academy, which was designed to evaluate ground-based tracking of space objects - a project that should ultimately help clear up space junk.
The second was the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate (or AFRL/RV), a joint Swedish-US experiment to explore technology developments in avionics miniaturisation, software-defined radio systems, and "space situational awareness". That's a catch-all term that covers attempts to track space "weather" (such as magnetosphere fluctuations), near-Earth objects such as asteroids and, again, space debris.
"The defence sector is very dual-use," Beck said.
"GPS is the best example. It's run, owned and operated and maintained by the US Air Force but we all use it to get to the supermarket."
He could also have pointed to the internet, which was born out of a Darpa experiment in distributed computing - or creating a computer network with no centre, the better to survive an attack by Russian nukes.
Speaking to the Herald again this week, Beck bolstered his public-good arguments.
"A lot of people don't understand how reliant they are on all the orbital infrastructure," he said.
"We take it for granted that we can whip out our cellphone and call up an Uber and it just turns up. Well guess what: all of that is enabled by a space infrastructure."
He added, "And if we can build that space infrastructure and enable many more technologies and ideas from that, then everybody's life on Earth gets significantly improved".
Weather satellites - which have provided a lot of business for Rocket Lab - are a great example, he said.
"That's because the weather satellite network is not great. It's really old infrastructure - super shaky.
"So if you can populate a whole cluster of new sensors in orbit, you can really start to do some important things. You can have real-time monitoring of the planet to start with.
"And if we're talking about how we're really going to influence climate change - and all of the predictions for these climate change disasters that are impending upon us - well one of the key solutions is measurement and really understanding what the pulse of the planet is; what's really going on - and you can only do that from space. Then you can make informed decisions.
"And closer to home in New Zealand, we have environmental issues of our own. Lets just take the waterways, for example. It's really difficult to build a really solid picture of our waterways if we're just dipping our toe in each stream. If you take the view from space, you can look at the whole system as a system rather than individual inputs - and you can actually make some really smart decisions about how you're going to go about solving the problems."