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Rocket Lab set to launch US military satellite for Pentagon

New Zealand-based space rocket company Rocket Lab says it plans to launch a satellite for the United States Pentagon's research arm next month.

The start-up last year began making commercial deliveries from its private launch site in the Mahia Peninsula - in the North Island - and has now announced its first mission for 2019 will be for the US' Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

US-owned Rocket Lab said it would be using one of its 17-metre Electron rockets to launch a 150-kilogram satellite for DARPA into orbit in late February, with the intent of testing a prototype array designed to improve radio communications in small spacecraft.

The Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) test could potentially pave the way for space-based internet, and "revolutionise global communications", according to DARPA.

Rocket Lab founder and chief Peter Beck told the NZ Herald if there was an military application it would be limited.

"If you wanted to communicate to the ground that's all it is,'' he said.

"While it has a military communication application, there is equal amount of interest in it being used for commercial purposes as well.''

New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in a statement said all missions had to receive ministerial approval and meet a number of criteria, including proving they didn't conflict with international obligations.

DARPA is well known for its futuristic projects that often draw comparisons to science-fiction and has been involved in inventions such as the first weather satellites as well as military research.

Rocket Lab runs the world's first privately-owned launch facility and focuses on getting small deliveries into orbit at relatively low costs.

It has previously said it hopes to speed up to a launch every two weeks this year.

The Electron rockets use 3D-printed engines and can carry payloads up to about 150kg.

Thirteen small satellites were launched from the Māhia peninsula last night. Source: Breakfast