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Watch again: Rocket Lab’s controversial Gunsmoke-J launch

Rocket Lab successfully launched its “They Go Up So Fast” mission, including two military satellites, at 11.30am today.

It was the nineteenth lift-off for the Kiwi-American company’s Electron rocket, and its second of 2021 – and take its total tally of satellites launched beyond 100. Watch again below.

“We are aware of a small protest march happening this morning at Opoutama, Mahia.Police are prepared to respond if necessary,” a police spokesperson said earlier this morning.

A spokesperson for Auckland Peace Action said, “We support the local Tangata Whenua who are taking a stand and becoming increasingly aware, and concerned, about Rocket Lab is doing on their whenua.” In the event, there were no reports of disruption.

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The launch will be used, in part, for further testing of Rocket Lab’s Photon “satellite bus”, which later this year will be used to ferry a NASA satellite into lunar orbit.

It will also include two more in a long line of military payloads.

One is an “M2” satellite developed by the University of New South Wales, Canberra, for the Royal Australian Air Force. It will sync with the “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 promoted by Rocket Lab.

The other is 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.

Earlier, the Green Party called for the launch to be suspended, following an open letter was sent to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern by the Peace Foundation International Affairs and Disarmament Committee, claiming the launch could violate NZ’s nuclear-free law.

The letter said the Gunsmoke-J satellite could be used to target nuclear weapons as well as conventional weapons systems.

However, Space Minister Stuart Nash, who signed off the payload, said it had met national interest and legal tests when scrutinised by the NZ Space Agency, which falls under MBIE.

And when asked how Gunsmoke-J sat with a recent pledge by Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck never to launch weapons, a spokeswoman said, “The payload is a test technology demonstrator, not an operational payload.”

Beck earlier underlined that many military technologies are dual-use and, like the internet and GPS, have gone on to be a public good.

The Kiwi-American Rocket Lab recently announced plans for a listing on the Nasdaq at a US$4.1 billion valuation.

The listing will raise some US$750m, ear-marked in part for the launch of Rocket Lab’s much larger Neutron rocket, scheduled for launch in 2024.

An investor presentation said the Neutron would be “Tailored for commercial and DoD [US Department of Defence] constellation launches.”

In an interview following today’s launch, Beck confirmed the Neutron’s maiden launch would be from Rocket Lab’s new launchpad, housed witin NASA’s Wallops Island facility in the US state of Virginia.

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