Rocket Lab has successfully staged its latest launch, this time for a US military agency.

The "Birds of a Feather" mission blasted off at 3.56pm from Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, following a US military flight into Auckland mid-month bearing a secret cargo and sealed flight plans.

Space Minister Phil Twyford updates rules on what can be sent into space
The US military flight to New Zealand - and the secret cargo it carried

The launch was a dedicated mission for US Department of Defense agency the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).


The NRO competitively awarded Rocket Lab a contract under its Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract programme. RASR allows the NRO to explore new launch opportunities that can provide a streamlined, commercial approach for getting small satellites into space, the company said.

The "Birds of a Feather" fairing. Photo / Rocket Lab

The NRO describes itself as "the US Government agency in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America's intelligence satellites ... When the United States needs eyes and ears in critical places where no human can reach – be it over the most rugged terrain or through the most hostile territory – it turns to the NRO."

"Birds of a Feather" integration. Source / Rocket Lab

The NRO's very existence was classified until 1992. It describes itself as a hybrid, with its staff "consisting of NRO cadre, members of the armed services, the CIA, and DoD civilian personnel."

Each Rocket Lab payload has to be approved by the NZ Space Agency (part of MBIE), with Space Minister Phil Twyford given final sign-off.

Twyford recently clarified his critieria for vetting what could be sent to low-Earth orbit from Mahia. Banned payloads include those contributing to nuclear weapons programmes or any that support military operations ''contrary to Government policy''

"Birds of a Feather" is Rocket Lab's tenth mission since its first successful commercial launch in January 2018.

Missions have included a mix of research, education, commercial payloads, plus military satellites for US Defence agency DARPA and the US Air Force - although Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck has been quick to point out that all have a research rather than operational purpose, and that many military technologies such as GPS have proved dual-use.

A Rocket Lab spokeswoman said the company's second launch complex, at NASA's Wallops Island facility in the US state of Virginia, was finished on schedule at the end of last year.


The Kiwi-American company's first US launch is scheduled for the second quarter.

The "Birds of a Feather" fairing. Photo / Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab says Launch Complex 2 at Wallops will be primarily for US government clients who prefer a North American launch, and that Mahia - with its attractively empty skies and shipping lanes - will remain its high-volume launch site and is indeed being expanded.

The inaugural mission from the Wallops site will be a dedicated flight for the US Air Force.