Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19 lift-off, 16 December 2018. Photo: Rocket Lab / Trevor Mahlmann

Revealed: Rocket Lab has just made NZ a launch pad for US defence satellites

Its latest mission may be inadvertently exposing New Zealand to the militarisation of space, writes Ollie Neas.

Rocket Lab made history on Sunday as its first ever mission for NASA made orbit from the Mahia Peninsula. The mission was the first dedicated launch of miniature satellites, or CubeSats, for NASA by a commercial launch provider.

But this was not the only reason the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19 was historic. It was also the first time a satellite for a US defence agency was launched from New Zealand.

Although described as an “educational” mission, ELaNa-19 included a satellite that will conduct research for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon agency which develops cutting-edge technology for the US military.

DARPA’s involvement with this satellite, called the SHFT-1, has not been publicly disclosed by Rocket Lab. Nor does it appear to have been disclosed to the minister for economic development, David Parker, who approved the launch.

This launch is set to be followed by another for DARPA in early 2019 as part of a US Department of Defense programme to demonstrate that it can launch satellites rapidly in the increasingly contested space environment.

These developments come after The Spinoff revealed the extent of Rocket Lab’s work for US defence agencies last month, and signal New Zealand’s creeping involvement in US programmes to enhance its military capabilities in space.

A defence and security expert says these launches expose the risk of New Zealand inadvertently militarising space, and could also undermine New Zealand’s national security.

NASA ELaNa19 fairing mission separation, 16 December 2018. Photo: Rocket Lab

The SHFT-1 is described in Rocket Lab press releases as a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory satellite. But NASA’s own Orbital Debris Risk Assessment Plan for the mission indicates that the SHFT-1 is in fact a project of the DARPA Strategic Technology Office (STO), though it was designed by NASA.

The STO focuses on “technologies that enable fighting as a network to increase military effectiveness, cost leverage, and adaptability”. DARPA’s mission generally is to “maintain and advance the capabilities and technical superiority of the United States military”.

A DARPA spokesperson told The Spinoff that the SHFT-1 will measure radio frequencies to improve the performance of over-the-horizon radar ( OTHR).

OTHR is a type of radar system that can detect targets over long distances by bouncing radio waves off the ionosphere, which is a layer of the atmosphere. Its military uses include detecting missiles and stealth aircraft.

But there is no mention of DARPA or OTHR in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s briefing to the economic development minister David Parker, who approved the launch, although one paragraph of the briefing is redacted.

Released under the Official Information Act, this briefing simply describes the SHFT-1 as a NASA JPL satellite that will “study high-frequency signals to support research into galactic background emissions”.

MBIE advised the Parker that it had not identified any national interest concerns from the ELaNa-19 satellites and the New Zealand Intelligence Community identified no risks to national security. Parker’s office declined to confirm to The Spinoff whether he was personally aware that the SHFT-1 is part of a DARPA project, but responded that the minister was briefed on the launch.

“The Minister is satisfied that all the payloads, including the SHFT-1, are to be used to advance science and for research and development purposes and that the mission and purpose of the payloads is not contrary to our national interest,” his office said.

Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand’s east coast, from which Rocket Lab launched its first ever satellite for NASA on Sunday. (Photo: Rocket Lab).

The Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Act allows the minister to veto a satellite if it is not in the national interest. Although it prohibits the launch of weapons of mass destruction, it does not preclude the use of space for military purposes generally.

MBIE was asked to comment on whether it informed the minister about DARPA’s involvement, but said it would be treating The Spinoff’s questions as an Official Information Act request. Rocket Lab, which provided comment for The Spinoff’s last article, did not reply to a request for comment about the SHFT-1.  

Little has been revealed publicly about the broader SHFT programme, which stands for the Space-based High Frequency Testbed. But public records show that US federal government contracts for the programme have been awarded to the defence and weapons contractor Raytheon, the scientific research institute SRI International, and Systems & Technology LLC, a company specialising in “advanced research and development for defense, intelligence and homeland security applications”.

The second DARPA satellite to be launched from New Zealand is called the R3D2 and is part of a joint programme between DARPA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Last month The Spinoff revealed that Rocket Lab would be launching this satellite but until now it was not known whether the launch would be from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site on the Mahia Peninsula, its yet-to-be-constructed site in the US, or some other site entirely.

DARPA now confirms that the launch will be from the Mahia Peninsula and likely in February or March 2019. Rocket Lab has not publicised this launch in any way and has declined two invitations from The Spinoff to comment on it.  

David Parker’s office says that he has been informed about DARPA’s interest in the launch but has not considered an application for the R3D2 satellite. “Each application for a payload permit is considered on a case-by-case basis against the requirements in the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act,” his office said.

DARPA spokesperson Jared Adams says that the R3D2, which stands for RF Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, will demonstrate a new type of “membrane reflect-array antenna”.

“The demo seeks to prove a smaller, faster to launch and cheaper capability, providing increased communication coverage typically covered by geo-communications satellites. The R3D2 effort is in partnership with, and sponsored by, the Office of the Secretary of Defense as part of an effort to demonstrate rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities.”

It is not clear whether other satellites will be included on this launch. But the US Department of Defense will pay Rocket Lab US$6.5 million, which is close to the US$6.95 million for the whole NASA ELaNa-19 mission.

The US Department of Defense has actively pursued rapid launch capabilities in recent years as other nations challenge its dominance in space. Responding to these challenges, the Trump Administration announced plans in August to create a dedicated Space Force as a sixth branch of the US military.

Rocket Lab’s two DARPA launches indicate that New Zealand is to play a role in US space initiatives. Terry Johanson, a lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies, says that this may pose risks to New Zealand’s national security.

“Some of the threats are from our own cooperation with a larger partner who wants to push their own national interest, which may not necessarily align to what our national interests are in maintaining the non-militarisation of space,” he said.

“An opponent of America could see New Zealand as a more vulnerable area in which to target indirectly America’s space programme or defence program. For example, Russia, North Korea or China could potentially undertake operations here to sabotage the American defense programme.”

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Johanson also suggests the government may not have full information about what is being launched from New Zealand due to the Technology Safeguards Agreement, the treaty signed to allow for the transfer of US rocket technology to New Zealand.

The agreement requires the US to provide a written statement about spacecraft it proposes to launch from New Zealand, but precludes New Zealand from launching any spacecraft that the US deems contrary to its laws or policies.  

Last Thursday Winston Peters, who is the disarmament and arms control minister, announced that New Zealand will chair the Missile Technology Control Regime in 2019.

“New Zealand’s emerging space industry makes it particularly relevant at this time that we contribute to the effective international control of sensitive missile-related technologies,” Peters said.


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