Revealed: NZ Space Agency briefing on Rocket Lab’s controversial Gunsmoke J launch for US Army

It’s been something a horror month for Rocket Lab in the build-up to its $6 billion listing on the Nasdaq.

First, it suffered its third mission failure for its Electron rocket, then there was bad publicity over a $100,000 unjustified dismissal penalty.

Do “Gunsmoke-J” documents released to the Herald under the Official Information Act make things worse?

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In short, no. They back Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck’s claim that his company will never launch a weapons system.

Beck has long argued that while his company launches payloads for various branches of the American armed forces, they are always research rather than military-operational satellites (and he’s further argued that we’ve all benefited from neutral military technologies that have crossed over into the public sector, including the internet and GPS).

The Greens, Auckland Peace Action and some Mahia iwi said Rocket Lab’s March 28 “They Go Up So Fast” launch crossed that line, with cargo that sounded like it was very bluntly designed for military operation.

The manifest included a satellite called “M2” developed by the University of New South Wales, Canberra, for the Royal Australian Air Force. It was designed to sync with “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 published by Rocket Lab.

And, more on the nose, the mission also included the “Gunsmoke-J” satellite, being launched for the US Army’s Space and Missile Defence Command (SMDC).

Gunsmoke-J is 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 Greens said Gunsmoke-J could be used by the US military to pinpoint nuclear targets, so violated our anti-nuke legislation.

Beck said, “The payload is a test technology demonstrator, not an operational payload.”

Space Minister Stuart Nash said id did not violate our anti-nuclear legislation or any of our international treaties. He signed off on the launch.

Copies of the approval certification and associated correspondence, supplied by the NZ Space Agency (which sits within MBIE) are redacted in places but seem to back Beck’s version of events.

Like all Rocket Lab launches, each satellite on They Go Up So Fast’s manifest had to be approved by Nash and the NZ Space Agency, after assessing technical and safety factors, such as measures to mitigate debris falling to Earth, and apply a national-interest test, with assistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the GCSB AND SIS.

Under the national interest test – as outlined in the approval documentation, referencing NZ’s Space and High-altitude Acitivities Act (2017) – a payload must in keeping with “New Zealand values and interests”; and, more specifically, not contribute to nuclear weapons programmes or capabilities, not be designed to harm other spacecraft, not cause serious or irreversible harm to the environment; and not have an end-use that sports “specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy.”

A Gunsmoke-J payload permit briefing prepared for Nash says “The US Army has stated that this satellite will not be utilised for operations … They have confirmed it will remain a science and technology demonstration over its lifetime.”

An email trail between the NZ Space Agency and US satellite launch broker TriSept – which was handling the paperwork for the US Army – is pretty routine, with a slight delay as the NZSA asks for more information on various points.

The briefing paper recommended Nash attach one special condition to the Gunsmoke J satellite, requiring that the US Army Space Missle Command notify the NZ Space Agency as soon as possible if the event of any “incident or accident” involving the satellite. It notes the US Army is covering liability insurance.

In terms of the M2, the approval documentation says, “This satellite has an optical sensor with 3m resolution, which will be used to image ships detected by pubically-broadcast navigation signals. This resolution is not sufficient to identify specific people …

The payload does not have direct military applications.”

It continues: “The ADF [Australian Defence Force] will be the recipient of the remote-sensing data. As our only formal ally, it is generally in New Zealand’s interest to provide capability assistance to the ADF where possible.”

It also notes that while it is impossible to predict future use of an image-sensing satellite, or whom its data could ultimately be shared with, Australia is a “credible jurisdiction”

It says the mission will also help NZ’s “close science relationship with Australia” and “strengthen our connection to the Australian space sector.”

A letter from the University of New South Wales, quoting ADF responses to NZ Space Agency questions, says, “I can confirm that the M2 mission is an unclassified, non-operation mission and the purpose of the two spacecraft [M2 and M1] is for platform and payload technology demonstration … The M2 system is not yet at a maturity where we could provide operational capability.”

The documents released under OIA – their redacted sections notwithstanding – show that Beck has been upfront and consistent with his stance on payloads.

The sheer volume of military mentions in the correspondence and the fact that M2 and Gunsmoke-J are, ultimately, designed to improve military capability means Rocket Lab’s critics are unlikely to be mollified, however.

But it’s also an argument that will soon move beyond our regulatory sphere.

Beck recently confirmed on a conference call with journalists that his company’s much larger Neutron rocket will only launch from his company’s recently Launch Complex 2 at Nasa’s Wallops Island facility in the US state of Virginia. Launch Complex 1 at Mahia is too small for the Neutron, Beck said, and US government clients Nasa and the Department of Defense want launches from American soil.

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