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Birds of a Feather integration. Photo: Rocket Lab
Birds of a Feather integration. Photo: Rocket Lab

SocietyFebruary 1, 2020

A US spy satellite just launched from NZ. Here’s what you need to know

Birds of a Feather integration. Photo: Rocket Lab
Birds of a Feather integration. Photo: Rocket Lab

The controversial mission, ‘Birds of a Feather’, is the first launch for a US spy agency from NZ. Ollie Neas explains what we know – and even more importantly, what we don’t. 

Last May, The Spinoff reported that New Zealand Space Agency staff had met with officials from a major US intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office or NRO.

The outcome of those discussions is now clear: Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2020 is of a classified NRO satellite – and it took off from the Mahia Peninsula yesterday afternoon.

The mission, which follows a series of launches for US military agencies last year, is both the first launch for a US spy agency from NZ and the first dedicated launch for the NRO from outside the US.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mission has not been without controversy, with the Green Party voicing concerns in light of the Trump Administration’s recent aggression in the Middle East.

But should we be concerned? What actually is being launched? And why is a spy satellite being launched from NZ in the first place? Here’s what you need to know.

The NR-who?

The National Reconnaissance Office is the US intelligence agency that handles America’s satellite reconnaissance activity.

Although established in 1961, the NRO’s existence was not acknowledged publicly until 1992, and it remains lesser known than its more prominent peers, the CIA and NSA.

But its work is significant: it operates around 50 of the over 150 US military satellites that are publicly known, and it provides data collected from those satellites to both the US military and other intelligence agencies.

The NRO is best known for collecting imagery of the Earth – such as the insanely detailed photo that Trump casually tweeted of an Iranian launch site. But it also collects signals intelligence, which includes intercepted text and voice communications and data collected from other sources like aircraft and missiles.

Despite its secrecy, the NRO has looked in recent years to commercial providers for some services, such as Rocket Lab, which won the contract for the NZ launch as part of an NRO initiative to explore launching small satellites with commercial providers.

While the mission will be the first launch from NZ of an NRO-owned satellite, Rocket Lab has already launched a number of commercial satellites that sell data to the intelligence agency, as The Spinoff reported in August.

What does this satellite actually do?

We don’t know – and we’re not allowed to.

On the one hand, it could be an operational spy satellite, collecting intelligence for US military and intelligence agencies. But it also might be undertaking research and development or testing new technology.

The New Zealand Space Agency has been clear that the US military payloads launched so far have been for research and development purposes only. But it’s declined to confirm whether this is the case with the NRO satellite, telling the Gisborne Herald that it “cannot comment on the intended end use of the payload because this information is protected.”

Does that mean the mystery NRO payload is operational then? Not necessarily, as the NRO typically doesn’t disclose details of specific programmes or capabilities anyway. But it is worth noting that in October the Space Agency acknowledged that it does expect “defence and security payloads with operational functions” to be launched at some point.

In the event that the NRO satellite is an operational spy satellite, we can probably rule out some capabilities – such as higher resolution imaging – due to the physical constraints of small satellites. But when placed in a constellation of other satellites, or integrated with other data sources, even small satellites can have powerful effects.

Behold, for example, the NRO’s Sentient programme: a classified AI tool that aims to process huge amounts of data from different sources to predict future events, helping it to automatically point satellites to the most likely areas of interest.

Why is NZ launching a US spy satellite in the first place?

It all starts with Rocket Lab, the private space company founded in 2006 by Peter Beck, who was this week named one of three finalists for New Zealander of the Year.

As The Spinoff reported in 2018, Rocket Lab has worked for US military agencies since its early days – even designing a protective material for Patriot missiles – and its investors include Lockheed Martin and the CIA’s venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel.

But there was little public discussion of these military connections when Rocket Lab inked a deal in 2015 with the Māori incorporation Tawapata South Inc to lease farmland for a launch site, and when Parliament passed a law to allow for launches in 2017.

New Zealand’s role as a launch pad for classified US satellites is made possible by our close security relationship with the US and our place in the secretive Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement – a point Peter Beck himself made in a 2018 Financial Times interview.

As part of the Five Eyes arrangement, NZ’s spy agencies share intel with the US and receive data collected by the other Five Eyes countries in return. NZ’s contribution has previously included spying on our Pacific neighbours such as Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati.

As The Spinoff reported earlier this month, the launch of US government payloads from NZ appears to play some role in the Five Eyes network, with advice to the foreign affairs minister Winston Peters describing launches as a “tangible contribution to the broader Five Eyes intelligence network”.

Should we be concerned?

It depends who you ask.

Green Party foreign policy spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said last week that her party was “concerned” about the NRO launch.

“We are concerned in this instance, that surveillance and information sharing comes in the context of the American president expressing an intention to launch attacks against Iran, including cultural and civilian targets that would constitute war crimes,” Ghahraman told Stuff.

Outside of Parliament, a number of activist organisations – such as Organise Aotearoa, Auckland Peace Action and the Anti-Bases Campaign – have called for the end of launches for US military and intelligence agencies.

Rocket Lab’s previous military launches have also been criticised by defence and disarmament experts for putting NZ’s national security at risk and for potentially being in tension with NZ’s nuclear free status.

But the government has been clear that it’s comfortable with all launches so far and the Space Agency has on many occasions emphasised the civilian benefits that can come from military technology.

All launches and payloads are signed off by the economic development minister Phil Twyford on the advice of the NZ Space Agency, which assesses payloads against various criteria, including whether the payload is in NZ’s national interest.

Last month the government released new guidelines for the national interest test. These rule out payloads that “contribute to nuclear weapons programmes or capabilities” or that have intended end uses that support or enable “specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy”.

However, it remains unclear as to which “specific defence, security or intelligence operations” are contrary to government policy and which are not.

NZ’s membership in the Five Eyes and close relationship with the US means that by default government policy is to participate to some degree in US intelligence and security efforts. How you feel about this fact probably shapes how you feel about the NRO launch.

But the space industry does appear to be deepening these ties.

As The Spinoff reported last year, the government has welcomed launches as strengthening NZ’s security relationship with the US, while a recent investigation revealed that the New Zealand Defence Force is becoming increasingly involved in US military plans for space, including by participating in space wargames.

The government is well aware that many New Zealanders won’t be happy with these developments.

“Certain groups are opposed to New Zealand’s security relationship with the US, and it is possible that such groups would be motivated to disrupt launches if they were aware that US Government security payloads were being launched from New Zealand,” one Space Agency briefing obtained by The Spinoff says.

The way forward, the Space Agency recommended, was to develop a joint PR strategy with Rocket Lab to highlight the benefits of the industry while limiting public disclosure of payload details.

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