The space program of New Zealand

In this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, let’s have a look at the space program of New Zealand. New Zealand’s role in outer space is gaining momentum, bringing increased opportunities. Rocket Lab, a United States of America corporation with a subsidiary in New Zealand, is the main commercial player in New Zealand’s emerging space industry. New Zealand is setting itself up to become an international launch site for sending objects into outer space.  Before the first rocket lifts off, a series of laws and regulations were needed to ensure any space activities were done safely, and to the best international standards.

Rocket Lab has recently developed the Electron space launch vehicle to provide a dedicated launch service for small satellites. The company’s mission is to remove commercial barriers to outer space. Rocket Lab recognised that New Zealand offered an attractive location for space launch activities, due to the innovation-friendly business environment, strong science and research, and development system, skilled workforce and suitably remote geography (including low volumes of air, and sea traffic).

Today, many more players are able to access outer space. Advances in technology have enabled the production of smaller, cheaper, and more powerful satellites. The standardisation and mass production of small satellites have also reduced barriers to entry, and driven innovation in space-related services and applications. The development of a New Zealand-based space industry would enable New Zealand to participate directly in this new economy, and ensure that all New Zealanders could benefit from the opportunities that the use of outer space, and the participation of New Zealand in the global space economy have to offer.

The New Zealand Space Agency

Set up in 2016, the New Zealand Space Agency is the lead government agency for space policy, regulation, and business development. The New Zealand Space Agency was formed in April 2016 under the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The aim of the agency is to promote the development of a space industry in New Zealand, and to reap its economic benefits. The government also established the space agency to regulate the country’s growing commercial space industry, and specifically to allow space launches by the New Zealand subsidiary of Rocket Lab, a U.S. aerospace company.

Growth in the small satellite industry has in turn created demand for small satellite launch vehicles. Developments in space technologies and space business models, means that outer space is now open to a new generation of entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, and countries around the world are keen to share in the full range of economic development and social benefits that space offers.

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, founded in June 2006, is a “New Space” private American aerospace manufacturer and smallsat launch service provider, with a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary. Main component of the space program of New Zealand, the private company developed a suborbital sounding rocket named Ātea (Māori for outer space), and currently operates a lightweight orbital rocket known as Electron, which provides dedicated launches for smallsats and CubeSats. In December 2010, Rocket Lab was awarded a U.S. government contract from the Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS) to study a low cost space launcher to place CubeSats into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The company was founded in New Zealand in 2006, and established headquarters in California, in the United States of America, in 2013.

The first launch of the Ātea suborbital sounding rocket occurred in late 2009. The 6-metre long rocket, weighing sixty kilograms, was designed to carry a two kilograms payload to an altitude of one hundred and twenty kilometres. It was intended to carry scientific payloads, or possibly personal items. Ātea-1, named Manu Karere or “Bird Messenger” by the local New-Zealanders, was successfully launched from Great Mercury Island, near the Coromandel Peninsula, on November 2009.

Electron is a two-stage launch vehicle which uses Rocket Lab’s Rutherford liquid engines on both stages. The Electron test program began in May 2017, with commercial flights announced by the company to occur in 2020. Launching from Mahia Peninsula (between the cities of Napier and Gisborne), Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 (also known as Mahia Launch Complex or Spaceport) is a commercial spaceport located close to Ahuriri Point, at the southern tip of Mahia Peninsula, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.

Space law in New Zealand

Continuing with the space program of New Zealand, until recently, New Zealand had no specific space regulation, in contrast to many other countries. A key challenge for regulators is how to enable entrepreneurship and innovation, while managing the risks associated with rapidly evolving technologies, and associated market change. In 2015, the New Zealand government decided to enable space launches from New Zealand.

In a little under two years, New Zealand has gone from having no national space law, to having a new act to regulate New Zealand space activities. The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act was passed in July 2017. The act governs the launch of space objects such as rockets and satellites into outer space from New Zealand (and by New Zealanders overseas), and it regulates launch facilities. The act also introduces a regime to manage certain high-altitude activities that take place from New Zealand, such as high-altitude balloons (high-altitude vehicles operate above controlled airspace but do not go into outer space).

One of the first steps in the process, was to assess whether New Zealand’s existing domestic law was adequate to manage space activities, or whether a new law would be required. At the time that the international Onusian treaties were ratified, New Zealand’s policymakers and legislators clearly deemed legislation unnecessary to implement them. Fifty years later, Rocket Lab’s activities provide a graphic illustration of how developments in technology have changed the space industry, and made it accessible to a wider group of participants. This necessitated a change of view on the need for legislation to implement the rights and obligations of the space treaties. It also led New Zealand to consider how to ensure that legislation would provide a balance between risk management and not inhibiting economic development and innovation.

The 2017 Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act has proposed the following: the introduction of a licensing regime for space launches, launch facilities, and payloads (like satellites), and a legal framework to regulate high-altitude activities originating from New Zealand. The creation of new penalties for things such as launching a space object without permission and/or intentionally failing to comply with launch permit conditions. The ability to create regulations in the future to ensure New Zealand’s laws around things like the classification of what is or is not a launch vehicle, payload, high-altitude vehicle, or launch facility are up-to-date without requiring a new law to be passed.

The Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA)

In order for Rocket Lab to commence space launch activities from New Zealand, it had to seek approval from the United States of America government to transfer sensitive technology to New Zealand. The U.S.A. would only allow the transfer of this technology if New Zealand concluded a treaty-level Technology Safeguards Agreement with the U.S. government. The TSA imposes certain obligations on New Zealand in relation to the safe and secure transfer, use and management of U.S. space launch technologies.

The majority of the obligations on the New Zealand government are to ensure compliance by Rocket Lab and third parties, such as Rocket Lab’s contractors, with the provisions of the TSA. The TSA also protects New Zealand’s laws and sovereignty over space launch activities from New Zealand. New Zealand is able to veto launches from New Zealand that are contrary to the domestic laws, regulations and policies. While many of the obligations under the TSA could be managed through contractual arrangements with Rocket Lab and the existing criminal law, legislation was necessary to fully implement the TSA. This is what can be said concerning the space program of New Zealand.