The Greens have stepped up an attack on Rocket Lab for including a US military satellite in its next launch - "Gunsmoke-J", a prototype for a possible series of nano-satellites that will collect targeting data "in direct support of Army combat operations" according to a US Army fact sheet and a US Department of Defence budget document.
The party wants the launch suspended.
The Greens call follows an open letter was sent to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern by the Peace Foundation International Affairs and Disarmament Committee, claiming the launch could violate NZ's nuclear-free law.
The letter said the Gunsmoke-J satellite could be used to target nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons systems.
But Rocket Lab says the payload is within New Zealand laws, and Space Minister Stuart Nash - who is required to sign off on every Rocket Lab launch - says it also passes a required "national interest" test.
Rocket Lab first announced its "They Go Up So Fast" mission on February 10, headlining that the mission (due to be staged later this month) will carry out further tests of its "Photon" technology that will be used to ferry a NASA satellite into lunar orbit later this year.
It did also list the full manifest, including the Gunsmoke-J test satellite, procured by contractor TriSept Corporation for the US Army's Space and Missile Defence Command (SMDC).
Rocket Lab included a statement from TriSept CEO Rob Spicer in its launch announcement - but an abbreviated version. Various trade aerospace and defence trade publications run Spicer's full statement, which included the section in bold:
"This leading-edge mission for the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command will orbit aboard a satellite smaller than a loaf of bread, but will have a huge impact on milestone developments in warfighter capabilities on the battlefield and beyond. TriSept is thrilled to have secured the rideshare slot, dispenser hardware, regulatory compliance in both nations, and spacecraft integration for this important technology demonstration in space. We look forward to integrating this small but game-changing payload aboard a Rocket Lab Electron in the coming months."
"They Go Up So Fast" will also carry the "M2" satellite developed by the University of New South Wales, Canberra, for the Royal Australian Air Force. It will sync with the "M1" launched by Rocket Lab in 2018, and be "primarily be used for maritime surveillance, quantum computing, advanced AI, and laser communications" according to a manifest summary promoted by Rocket Lab.
Using satellites to help the military locate targets is nothing new, but TriSept's website highlights a Space News report that says, "It can take hours or days to get images from national security satellites. That's not going to help a battlefield commander, for example, locate a moving armoured vehicle on the ground."
Gunsmoke-J is intended to help fill that gap. The satellite "will demonstrate an ability to deliver situational awareness down to the lowest tactical level possible".
Yesterday, the Greens said Rocket Lab represents a threat to New Zealand's security, sovereignty and national interests.
"I want to stand in support of Mahia locals and peace advocates for speaking up about Mahia being used as a launchpad by the US Military," Green security and intelligence spokesman Teanau Tuiono said.
"We support the call to suspend the granting of licences for space-launch activities on behalf of US military agencies and to reverse the Gunsmoke-J permit which is scheduled to be part of the next Rocket Lab launch.
"Gunsmoke-J belongs to the US Army's Space and Missile Defence Command (SMDC) and is designed to improve US missile targeting capabilities during combat.
"The Government has a moral responsibility to make sure technologies sent into orbit by New Zealand companies from New Zealand soil do not assist other countries' armies to wage war.
"The launch of a satellite that enables weapons of war to more precisely target people does not comply with the principle for authorising New Zealand space activity, approved by Cabinet in 2019. It states 'space activities should be conducted in a way that does not jeopardise human safety - including the safety of people in space'."
Breaking pledge not to launch a weapon?
Last week, as Rocket Lab announced its $6 billion Nasdaq listing and development of a much larger rocket, founder and CEO Peter Beck fielded the question: "Is there any payload you wouldn't carry?" - a key question as two Rocket Lab shareholders, ACC and Australia's Future Fund, come under increasing ethical investment pressure (admittedly something not likely to be such a large concern for Rocket Lab's largest backer, defence and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin).
Beck replied, "We've been very clear from the beginning that weapons are an absolute no-go for us."
But by helping troops more accurately fire at the enemy, is Gunsmoke-J just one step away from a weapon, and a blurry step at that? The Herald put that point to Rocket Lab today.
"The payload is a test technology demonstrator, not an operational payload," Rocket Lab comms head Morgan Bailey responded.
Space Minister Nash, Rocket Lab respond
When the Herald put the Greens' concerns to Nash and Rocket Lab yesterday, both came back with the same response.
That is, that any Rocket Lab payload must comply with the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 and other relevant New Zealand legislation.
They must also pass a Cabinet approved "national interest" test, which includes the following criteria:
• Payloads 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.
• Payloads with the intended end use of supporting or enabling specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy.
• Payloads where the intended end use is likely to cause serious or irreversible harm to the environment.
"The payload in question was assessed against these criteria and approved for launch. To date, all payloads launched from New Zealand have met these stringent requirements and received payload permits," Rocket Lab's Bailey said.
A spokeswoman for Nash noted he was supported in his decisions by the NZ Space Agency, which sites within MBIE.
She also pointed to a February 23 Question Time exchange between Tuiono and Nash, during which Nash said he rejected the Greens' premise about Gunsmoke-J.
When pressed by Tuiono about Gunsmoke-J's combat role, Nash conceded: "I'm unaware of the specific military capabilities."
But he added approval was granted based on official advice from the NZ Space Agency.
"This satellite did not pose a risk to national security and the operations were not contrary to New Zealand's national interest," Nash said (see the full exchange below).
'Tailored for the DoD'
More controversy could lie ahead.
In an investor presentation about Rocket Lab's pending Nasdaq listing, a section on its larger Neutron rocket, due to be launched in 2024, says it will be "Tailored for commercial and DoD [US Department of Defence] constellation launches".
And one of the pillars of Rocket Lab's bullish revenue forecast is that the US Department of Defence is "focused on space infrastructure".
As a young company, Rocket Lab received breakthrough funding from the US military research wing Darpa. The first launch from its new launchpad in Virginia (and its first on US soil) will be for the US Air Force - a frequent client, along with US military surveillance agencies.
Early backer Mark Rocket parted ways with Beck because he was uncomfortable with the company's direction.
But Beck has long maintained that Rocket Lab only launches research, not operational satellites for its US Defense clients.
And he earlier pointed out that many technologies developed for the military are dual-use. Some, like the internet and GPS, have contributed considerable public good.
POSTSCRIPT: Question Time, February 23, 2021
Question No. 10
TEANAU TUIONO (Green) to the Minister for Economic and Regional Development: What advice, if any, has he received about the upcoming launch in New Zealand of a satellite that includes the "Gunsmoke-J" payload from the United States Army's Space and Missile Defence Command?
Hon STUART NASH (Minister for Economic and Regional Development): I received advice from the New Zealand Space Agency, that resides within MBIE. The New Zealand Space Agency assessed the application against a number of criteria set out in the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act. The assessment process is supported by multiple Government agencies that contribute to the regulation of space-related activities. The New Zealand Space Agency processes each application on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the requirements of the Act are met. This includes an assessment that (1) the payload will be operated safely and meet New Zealand's requirements on orbital debris mitigation; (2) the proposed operation of the payload is consistent with New Zealand's international obligations; (3) its operations do not pose a risk to national security; and (4) its operations are not contrary to New Zealand's national interest.
Teanau Tuiono: How is the recent ministerial approval of the launch of this satellite, which may assist the US military to improve its targeting capabilities, in line with Government policy?
Hon STUART NASH: I reject the premise of that question. As I outlined, the process we go through is quite clear, and one of the criteria that must be met before a minister will sign off is that the operations are not contrary to New Zealand's national interest.
Teanau Tuiono: What specific military capabilities does the satellite he approved to be launched have?
Hon STUART NASH: I'm unaware of the specific military capabilities.
Teanau Tuiono: How does the launch of a satellite that enables weapons of war to more precisely target people comply with the principle for authorising New Zealand space activity, approved by Cabinet in 2019 — and I quote — "Space activities should be conducted in a way that does not jeopardise human safety (including the safety of people in space)"?
Hon STUART NASH: What I will say is the applicant in this case provided all the information that was deemed required by our space agency to make a recommendation to me. The New Zealand Space Agency assessed the application and provided me with advice that, in fact, this satellite did not pose a risk to national security and the operations were not contrary to New Zealand's national interest.
Teanau Tuiono: Does the minister think that the Government has a moral responsibility to make sure technologies delivered into orbit by New Zealand companies from New Zealand soil do not assist other countries' armies to wage war?
Hon STUART NASH: Yes. What I will say is that when Cabinet analysed the process for signing off on satellite launches, we analysed this process very, very carefully before we signed off the relevant legislation. And one thing I will say is we take our international obligations very seriously, which is why I say that the space agency assessed that this satellite did not pose a risk to national security, nor were the operations contrary to New Zealand's national interests.