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Launch rehearsal for the Birds of a Feather launch, Rocket Lab Launch Complex, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand.
Launch rehearsal for the Birds of a Feather launch, Rocket Lab Launch Complex, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand.

SocietyJune 12, 2020

The spy chief and the payload: The story behind NZ’s first US spy satellite launch

Launch rehearsal for the Birds of a Feather launch, Rocket Lab Launch Complex, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand.
Launch rehearsal for the Birds of a Feather launch, Rocket Lab Launch Complex, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand.

In January a US spy satellite was launched from New Zealand for the first time. Ahead of the launch of another three satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office, Ollie Neas investigates the ever deepening ties between Rocket Lab, NZ authorities and America’s most secret military and intelligence agencies.

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An hour after lift-off, it was gone – released somewhere above Northern Europe into a classified orbit on a secret mission.

The satellite belonged to the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, the US spy agency responsible for surveilling earth from space for America’s military and intelligence agencies.

Notoriously secretive, the NRO’s existence was not officially acknowledged until 1992, some 30 years after its creation. And yet its operations are vast, collecting and intercepting data of all kinds from its fleet of satellites and network of ground stations around the world.

But its secrecy was not the most unusual thing about the satellite named NROL-151. Never before had the NRO launched from outside the US. That changed when the NROL-151 lifted-off aboard a Rocket Lab rocket from the Mahia Peninsula of New Zealand on January 31 this year.

This was not the first payload serving US military interests to be launched from New Zealand – five of Rocket Lab’s first nine launches carried cargoes for US military agencies. But unlike past launches, the NZ Space Agency this time declined to offer even the most general information about the satellite’s capabilities and purpose.

Was it a research and development payload? Or was it operational, collecting data for American spooks? The public wasn’t allowed to know, and still isn’t, even as three more NRO satellites are scheduled to be launched from New Zealand this week.

But new documents obtained by The Spinoff under the Official Information Act shed light on the background to the controversial launch.

These documents reveal that the NRO’s most senior official visited New Zealand twice in the lead up to the mission to discuss launches for the US government with the minister of defence and other military and intelligence officials. After those visits, NZ defence personnel participated for the first time in the NRO’s space war game.

These developments indicate deepening cooperation between a major US spy agency and NZ authorities on space activity, reflecting NZ’s newfound status as the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence network other than the US with launch capabilities.

The documents also show the NZ government’s concern over the public perception of the NRO launch, and reveal that the release last December of new guidelines for US government payloads was part of a deliberate PR strategy to build public confidence in the space regime before the spy launch was announced.

Concerns around public perception also drove the unusually late announcement of the launch, which not only left little time for public debate but even frustrated Rocket Lab, which privately told officials that it believed the delay would do “lasting damage”.

Lift-off on the January 31 launch of the Birds of a Feather mission, Rocket Lab Launch Complex, Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand

A public contract for a secret mission 

The path to lift-off for the NROL-151 began in March 2018 when the NRO issued a request for proposals for companies to launch multiple small satellites for the agency.

The NRO interest in the kind of services Rocket Lab provides was no secret. Although best known for large, powerful satellites, the agency had come to see small satellites as an important way to disperse capabilities through larger networks of satellites and get assets into orbit faster, thereby increasing resilience in a time of increasing tension in space.

The contract was to be implemented through a new scheme called the Rapid Acquisition of Small Launch. According to the NRO, this would provide a “streamlined, commercial approach for launching smallsats”, allowing it to “pursue the use of both large and small satellites to create an integrated architecture that provides global coverage to answer a wide range of intelligence questions”.

The world leader in the small launch sector, with a track record of work for military agencies, Rocket Lab was an obvious candidate to pitch for the contract. Indeed, the company had an existing relationship with the NRO, having participated in a workshop in 2017 aimed at providing the agency with an “awareness of industry capabilities and timelines required to execute small Launch-on-Demand missions”, according to congressional documents.

But there was a problem. The NRO had never in its 60-year history launched from outside the US, and Rocket Lab’s launch pad was on foreign soil. However, New Zealand wasn’t just any country. It was a member of the Five Eyes intelligence network – a factor that Rocket Lab’s CEO had said was key to making the country work as a launch site.

Six months after the request for proposals, discussions were under way between the NRO and NZ Space Agency about the launch of satellites from NZ – with staff from the two agencies meeting in September 2018 at a conference room just five minutes from the NRO’s headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia.

An aerial view of the NRO headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, US. The agency is in charge of developing, deploying and operating secret reconnaissance satellites. (Photo: Trevor Paglen / Creative Commons)

The spy chief visits Wellington

It would be another nine months before the NRO formally applied for a permit for the NROL-151. In the meantime, it was not only New Zealand’s civilian space authorities that the spy agency was talking to.

At the same time as NZ Space Agency staff were visiting the NRO in Virginia, the NRO’s most senior official, director Betty Sapp, was in Wellington to meet with the defence minister, Ron Mark, and staff from New Zealand military and intelligence agencies. This was the first of at least two visits by Sapp in the lead up to the NRO’s application to launch from New Zealand.

All that we know about these meetings is that the issue of US government launches was one of several topics on the agenda, according to material provided by the Ministry of Defence.

New Zealand’s military and intelligence agencies have long-standing ties to the NRO through NZ’s role in the Five Eyes network. For example, NZ has a presence at the Aerospace Data Facility Colorado, the NRO’s ground station for downloading high-altitude signals intelligence. The NRO also supplies the NZ Defence Force with satellite imagery.

As The Spinoff reported in January, the NZDF is also increasingly involved in US military plans for space through its membership in the Combined Space Operations initiative. But engagement with the NRO on launches from NZ appears to be a new development, reflecting NZ’s newfound status as the only Five Eyes nation other than the US with launch capabilities – albeit through Rocket Lab, a US company.

Other documents indicate what other space activity may have been on the agenda during Sapp’s visits – such as participation in the NRO’s space war game.

War games play a key role in developing the playbook for the US military and its allies to follow in a conflict in space. To that end, the NZDF has participated in the Pentagon’s premier space exercise, the Schriever Wargame, since 2015.

In June 2019, following the Sapp visits, the NZDF and Ministry of Defence participated for the first time in a war game called Thor’s Hammer, which is run by the NRO in Washington DC.

Unlike the Schriever Wargame, whose existence is well publicised, little is known about Thor’s Hammer specifically. The scant official references to it reveal only that it is a joint space and cyber war game designed to foster “interaction between NRO, the [US Space] Command and the warfighter”.

Increased information sharing may also have been on the agenda.

The day before the first Sapp meeting, the defence minister gave approval for the NZDF to sign an agreement with US Strategic Command to enable the sharing of unclassified space situational awareness information – data about what is in space and where. This information is essential for both military and civil space activities, helping to prevent collisions and identify hostile behaviour in orbit.

The US company LeoLabs, which works for the US Department of Defense, has since unveiled a radar in Central Otago to track satellites and space debris. LeoLabs is also working with the NZ Space Agency to support efforts to track NZ-launched satellites.

At least during Sapp’s first visit, NRO staff also met separately with the NZ Space Agency. Space Agency head Dr Peter Crabtree says that these meetings reflect the range of cooperation NZ has with the NRO.

“NRO regularly visits New Zealand to discuss a range of matters which reflects the established relationship between New Zealand and US as security partners. Some of these visits related to preparations for the launch of the first NRO payload.”

Economic development minister Phil Twyford, who is responsible for NZ’s space regime, says his predecessor David Parker was aware of Director Sapp’s visits at the time, but says they had no impact on the eventual decision to approve the NROL-151.

A declassified slide from an NRO training session on orbital mechanics.

The government plans for a ‘significant and sensitive’ launch

Minister Twyford signed off on the NROL-151 in October last year, three months after the NRO formally lodged its application with the NZ Space Agency, and five months after Space Agency communications staff began liaising with the NRO’s public affairs team. But it would be a further three months before the public was told about it.

These decisions were the culmination of over two years of discussion around NZ’s approach to the approval of sensitive US government payloads – and on how to communicate those decisions to a public considered by officials to be wary of US military involvement.

As The Spinoff reported last year, the National government was already aware of the US government’s interest in launching military payloads when Parliament established NZ’s space regime in 2017. That year officials advised Simon Bridges, then economic development minister, that “certain groups” may be “motivated to disrupt launches if they were aware that US government security payloads were being launched from New Zealand”.

In early 2018, the newly elected Labour government began to seriously consider its own position on US government launches, with the Space Agency briefing the prime minister and other key ministers on the issue on three occasions.

The product of those discussions was the creation of draft guidelines to convey to the US what NZ was prepared to approve, and a joint communications strategy with Rocket Lab to deal with the anticipated public pushback, emphasising the benefits and limiting the details made public.

Most of the briefings prepared for these discussions have been withheld, but a paragraph from one begins “early [US government] payloads will be of an R&D nature”. The rest of the paragraph is then redacted.

Pages from the NZ Space Agency’s heavily redacted briefing to Phil Twyford on the US spy satellite.

By the time the NRO filed its application for a payload permit, the government had considerable experience applying its guidelines in practice, following a series of launches for US military agencies such as DARPA and US Special Operations Command. But the NRO launch presented new challenges. It was “significant and sensitive”, in the words of one briefing. And unlike previous launches, the military applications of the classified payload could not be publicly minimised as “research and development” only.

Reflecting this sensitivity, Twyford took the matter to cabinet in late September with a proposed comms plan to build public confidence in the space regime before announcing the launch.

The plan was for the Space Agency to leverage various non-military space developments in its public communications, and to release summaries of approved payloads on a quarterly basis. Meanwhile the government would publish new principles for its approach to permitting US government payloads – including those with “operational” functions.

Talking points prepared for Twyford ahead of a cabinet meeting in November read: “In the interest of greater transparency to the New Zealand public on what may be launched from New Zealand, and to facilitate the assessment of operational payloads (including any potential risks they may present), I consider it appropriate to develop a fuller approach to the assessment of payloads with complex or sensitive end uses – particularly those payloads with defence, security or intelligence applications.”

Those principles set four red-lines. Payloads risking serious harm to the environment, contributing to nuclear weapons programmes, or intended to interfere with other spacecraft were ruled out. So too were payloads “enabling or supporting specific defence, security or intelligence operations that are contrary to government policy” – although what that meant in practice was not spelled out.

These payload principles appear to be different to the draft guidelines discussed by cabinet in 2018, which remain confidential. The Ombudsman has upheld the Space Agency’s decision to withhold those guidelines from The Spinoff.

Twyford declined to say whether conducting surveillance for US intelligence or military agencies would be a “specific defence, security or intelligence operation contrary to government policy”, as each application is assessed on a case by case basis.

“[The NRO] payloads are consistent with the New Zealand government’s principles for assessing national interest considerations in payload permit applications. These national interest considerations include safety, responsibility, sustainability and alignment with New Zealand’s values, policies, interests and laws,” said the minister.

“The launching of US government payloads which comply with the requirements of Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act is one of various ways New Zealand and the US cooperate on security issues, and contribute to the broader Five Eyes network.”

A detail from preparations for Rocket Lab’s Birds of a Feather launch, January 31 2020

Rocket Lab warns of ‘long lasting damage’

When the payload principles were released in mid December last year, the timing of the NRO launch announcement was not yet agreed – even though the launch itself was scheduled for the next month.

But two days later, the Space Agency advised Rocket Lab that an agreement had been reached “at the highest levels” of the NRO and the Space Agency: the launch would be announced on 21 January, 10 days before the launch window was set to open.

Rocket Lab was not pleased.

“Rocket Lab believes this is a very bad idea and we believe that being as transparent as we can is the best approach,” a company representative emailed later that day.

“For the public record, Rocket Lab does not agree with the NZ government on this decision to go late and we do believe that this will cause long lasting damage.”

Asked about its concerns, a Rocket Lab spokesperson told The Spinoff that the company is committed to keeping New Zealanders informed about launch activity.

“Our preference is to make information about upcoming missions available proactively as early as possible, typically around the time launch dates are confirmed.”

Emails between Rocket Lab and the Space Agency show that the absence of “the right ministers and MBIE people to support [the announcement] on the comms side” was a key factor behind the decision to delay the announcement, although the large part of the explanation is redacted.

Space Agency head Dr Peter Crabtree said the timing of the announcement “was influenced by multiple factors including the availability of key people over the holiday period” and “was agreed by all parties.”

“As with all launches, we remain committed to being transparent with the public about what launch activity is taking place in New Zealand,” he said.

The blur of orbit

Two days after a secret military cargo arrived in Auckland, the first launch of a spy satellite from NZ soil was finally announced to the public.

As officials had anticipated, the launch generated significant interest and controversy. For the first time an MP publicly criticised a Rocket Lab launch, with Green Party foreign affairs spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman raising concerns in light of recent US threats to attack civilian and cultural sites in Iran.

Due to its classified nature, the satellite’s path in orbit was omitted from both the public orbital catalogues and the NZ Space Agency’s own platform for monitoring payloads it approves. (The agency says it has other mechanisms for monitoring the compliance of classified payloads.)

A month after launch, an amateur satellite watcher in the Netherlands picked up an object travelling overhead that appeared to be the NROL-151, now designated the USA-294.

It looked like it was traveling in a high inclination orbit, sweeping diagonally across the face of the Earth, but not in a sun-synchronous orbit as is common for earth observation missions. But this was just an educated guess, based on rough measurements of a tiny object passing silently in the night sky.

What the satellite’s mission is, and what ends it will serve, remain a mystery.

The NRO did not respond to The Spinoff’s inquiries for this story. The NZDF advised that The Spinoff’s questions were being treated as a new Official Information Act request.

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