With Latest Rocket Lab Launch, NRO and Australia Strengthen Allied Cooperation

Rocket Lab Electron booster on the pad in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab)

WASHINGTON: Two new satellites intended to be launched into space by Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket have been developed by the US National Reconnaissance Office with the Australian government – and represent the spy agency’s push to expand cooperation with close allies.

“NROL-162 and NROL-199 carry national security payloads designed, built and will be operated by the National Reconnaissance Office in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence,” an NRO spokesperson said in an email. . “Missions NROL-162 and 199 are the latest examples of NRO’s commitment to improving relationships with American allies and partners.”

NROL 162, dubbed by Rocket Lab “Wise One Looks Ahead” is set to launch as early as 1:00 a.m. EDT on June 13 from New Zealand, according to a press release from the company. NROL-199, “Antipodean Adventure” is set to launch on July 22.

While “details on the payloads and its missions are protected,” the spokesperson explained that the collaboration stems from September 2021 Joint Statement on Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN).

During this meeting, the NRO and the Australian Department of Defense “engaged in a wide range of cooperative satellite activities that will expand Australia’s space knowledge and capabilities,” the statement said. “This collaboration will also make significant contributions to the NRO’s enduring pursuit of a more capable, integrated and resilient space-based architecture designed to provide global coverage in support of a wide range of intelligence mission requirements.”

The Ministry of Defense signed a first “call to action” for military space in February with Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom which all commit to sharing intelligence and seeking “collaborative opportunities” to develop new capabilities.

For its part, NRO also has personnel at the Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap radar station in Australia and at the communications station at Royal Air Force Base Menwith Hill in the United Kingdom.

In May, NRO and the UK Ministry of Defense announced they were collaborating on the first UK satellite to be launched from home territory, at a new facility in Cornwall, using UK-headquartered Virgin Orbit. . Virgin’s LauncherOne, which takes off horizontally from a modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, will carry two experimental Cubesats for the UK Ministry of Defence, known collectively as the Prometheus-2 mission. The shoebox-sized spacecraft “will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and sophisticated imagery, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communications system with our allies”. the MoD press release said.

But the very first NRO launch from foreign soil was from New Zealand in 2020, using Rocket Lab’s Electron booster.

“It’s a tremendous honor to fly NRO payloads because these payloads are of national importance,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told Breaking Defense in a July 6 interview, noting that SpaceX and United Launch Alliance so far have been used by US spy. agency.

“So it’s a very small club,” he said.

When it comes to launch customers, Beck said Rocket Lab’s base is roughly half government and half commercial.

The private company has two launch pads at its private spaceport in Mahia, New Zealand, but also opened a new facility on Wallops Island in Virginia in April optimized for its new Neutron rocket, a next-generation reusable booster.

NRO’s next two launches will be the fifth and sixth of the year for the company, Beck added. The goal, he said, is to achieve 12 successful launches by the end of the year.

Moreover, the company July 6 announced a new initiative that will allow customers, among other services, to essentially purchase launch on a “pay as you go” basis. The responsive space program is “designed to accelerate commercial and government satellite operators toward the company’s 24/7 rapid call launch capability and streamlined satellite construction and operation options,” says the press release.

Beck said that while the company is best known for providing launch services, much of the company’s business base is actually in space systems, like radios and software. While quarterly percentages vary, aerospace systems average “50% or more” of company revenue, he said.

“We supply a huge amount of satellite components and systems all over the world, whether it’s Japan, South Korea, Germany; almost every country has Rocket Lab,” he said.

Dino J. Dotson