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Pandemic delays New Zealand launch of three US Intel satellites

Posted by DefenceTalk on

Satellite launch company Rocket Lab announced earlier this week it had been forced to delay the launch of three US intelligence satellites from its New Zealand launch facility after that country ordered residents to stay home amid a spreading COVID-19 outbreak.

The private space launch company announced this week it had been forced to postpone the launch from its New Zealand spaceport on the north island’s Mahia Peninsula for a second time. The rocket, which is due to lift three satellites for the US Department of Defense’s National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), was originally slated to launch on March 30 but now is not expected to blast off before April 23.

“The mission was scheduled to lift off from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand on 30 March UTC. Launch preparations have been paused, however, following the New Zealand Government’s announcement on 23 March NZDT to implement the Level 4 COVID-19 response which requires most businesses to close and instructs people to stay at home. We commend the government for taking this drastic but necessary step to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the company said in a press release.

“This decision was made with the full support of the NRO, and we continue to engage with our partners at Rocket Lab as they work with the New Zealand government and local health officials to determine when launch operations can resume,” NRO spokesperson Laura Lundin told C4ISRNET. “The launch vehicle and ground systems will remain in a state of readiness for launch as the evolving situation allows.”

Rocket Lab noted the Electron rocket as well as ground systems at Launch Complex 1 would “remain in a state of readiness for launch as the evolving situation allows it,” but noted that “the majority of our team is working from home with the exception of a few essential personnel who are monitoring and maintaining critical systems.”

C4ISRNET noted the mission, dubbed “Don’t Stop Me Now,” would have seen payloads from the US space agency NASA and the University of New South Wales, Canberra Space, hitching a ride with the Pentagon’s payloads. All information about the nature of those payloads is classified.

Rocket Lab’s license from Wellington permits 120 launches per year, which it mostly uses for commercial launching of “CubeSat” miniature satellites. However, late last year, the company opened a second facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, adjacent to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which it will use for up to 12 government launches per year, reported.

According to Wednesday figures from the New Zealand Ministry of Health, there are 969 confirmed cases and 241 probable cases of COVID-19 on the island nation, with just one death so far. The government’s proactive measures have helped limit the spread of the virus, with just 26 new cases being detected in the last 24 hours despite widespread testing. As the Guardian noted, more people were arrested – 76 – for violating the stay-at-home orders in the last 24 hours than came down with the respiratory illness.

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