By Hanphenie Zhou     

      In January 2018, rumors that the clandestine Zuma satellite had been lost shortly after its launch brought attention to secret US government space missions. While the US government often sends classified payloads into space, the secrecy around the Zuma payload was atypical–the agency in charge of the Zuma project was unknown, the orbit was only known to be low-Earth, and the mission itself was only discovered when SpaceX’s launch license was made public a mere 30 days before the spacecraft’s original launch campaign [1].  As the commercial aerospace industry takes off, it is necessary to evaluate the current regulations on spacecraft disclosures and address the concerns regarding a lack of transparency, especially with government spacecrafts.

     Currently, the majority of regulations related to spacecrafts are managed by three separate government agencies: The Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) approves licenses for launches, reentries, and payloads; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for licenses for private space-based remote sensing; and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) manages licensing for radio communications and satellites. When these government agencies review the launch of a payload, they are primarily focused on ensuring compliance with international obligations of the United States and protecting the public health, safety of property, and national foreign policy interests of the United States [2]. The US’s concern with “ensuring compliance with international obligations” is largely related to the Outer Space Treaty; Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty requires “the appropriate State Party to the Treaty” to authorize and supervise any non-governmental entities’ activities in outer space, essentially making the US government liable for any US private or governmental entity’s actions in outer space [3].

     Thus, the activities of private entities regarding space are highly regulated. Licenses are required from the AST for anyone launching within the US, for any US citizens or entities launching outside the US, and for any foreign entities in which a US citizen has a controlling interest. To receive approval for a payload, companies must disclose information about everything from hazardous materials to the intended payload operations [4]. NOAA has similar requirements regarding private space-remote sensing systems: any person subject to the jurisdiction or control of the US must have a license, and the license application must completely describe the sensor payload design [5]. The FCC’s licensing requirements with regards to radio and satellite communications is much more nuanced and even touches upon authorized frequencies. Once a license is approved from any of these agencies, the license information is then made part of the public record. Only in certain cases can disclosures for private entities withhold information. Confidentiality may be requested for trade secrets or proprietary commercial or financial data, but the US government has the capacity to deny these requests.

     For US government entities, the required disclosures are substantially different. Although the US government has full internal disclosures on its classified missions, it only discloses launch information to the public about its classified payloads, mainly because it would be impossible to hide a rocket launch. However, apart from that, it is not required to disclose much else to the public, since payloads are not subject to review if the payload is owned or operated by the US government. The argument for these classified payloads is that withholding information on defense payloads and government satellites can have a strategic benefit. Thus, the public only knows operational information about certain classified satellites – those that have been declassified or those whose information has been leaked. Many of the declassified satellites have been revealed to be spy satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office [6].

     For private entities, there is an abundance of required disclosures for rocket launches. Most of their official activities are discoverable through the various licenses they must acquire. Even the information they hope to keep confidential must be evaluated by the relevant government agency. However, the Outer Space Treaty designation of “the appropriate State Party” as being strictly liable for any private or governmental entity’s actions in outer space forces each government to independently supervise the space activity occurring within its borders and by its citizens. That, paired with an instinctive desire for the US to maintain leadership in the commercial space sector, discourages transparency and communication among nations.

     This lack of transparency raises many concerns, chiefly the issue of orbital debris mitigation. Spacecraft programs develop their design and mission profile to limit the chances of their spacecraft creating debris through collisions with other objects in space [7]. However, to do so accurately, a program must be aware of the orbits of all objects in space. One of the current hubs promoting space situational awareness is known as Space-Track, which accumulates and shares orbital data it receives from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) [8]. Space-Track provides orbital data for all artificial Earth satellites, but it follows a different procedure for classified satellites. Rather than providing the orbit details for classified satellites, Space-Track only logs their existence in the catalog with a name. By withholding orbital information of classified satellites from the public, the US government complicates tracking and increases the possibility of spacecraft collision. One can only imagine how much the problem increases when the classified satellites of all other nations are considered.

     Despite efforts to keep their classified satellites secret, satellites in space are inevitably traceable. The US has its Space Surveillance Network, Russia has its Main Space Intelligence Center, and Europe has the Space Situational Awareness Program. The U.S. Air Force is also working with Lockheed Martin on creating a stronger space surveillance system. The “Space Fence,” which is expected to be operational sometime in 2018, will be able to detect much smaller satellites and space debris than the current system [9]. Already, concerns that the small size of Cubesats might make tracking harder have been refuted by NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office [10]. And with the new Space Fence the US Air Force is building, the ability for a spy satellite to escape the notice of others will further decrease. The traceability of satellites by governments, along with efforts by amateur satellite trackers to map the orbit of spy satellites, suggests that the secrecy kept around the orbit path of classified payloads and satellites may soon or already be futile. The secrecy surrounding certain satellite orbits only makes it more difficult for private companies to comply with orbital debris mitigation guidelines. Nations should be more transparent about their classified satellites to make it simpler and safer for more players to participate in the space community.


  1. "ARES: Orbital Debris Program Office Debris Mitigation". 2018. Orbitaldebris.Jsc.Nasa.Gov.

  2. Clark, Stephen. 2018. "NASA: Tracking Cubesats Is Easy, But Many Stay In Orbit Too Long". Spaceflightnow.Com.

  3. Clark, Stephen. 2018. "Regulatory Filings Suggest Spacex Plans November Launch With Mystery Payload". Spaceflightnow.Com.

  4. Code Of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Aeronautics And Space. 2018. Vol. 4133-41559.

  5. Gebhardt, Chris. 2018. "Spacex Adds Mystery “Zuma” Mission, Iridium-4 Aims For Vandenberg Landing". Nasaspaceflight.Com.

  6. Grush, Loren. 2018. "Did Spacex’S Secret Zuma Mission Actually Fail?". The Verge.

  7. "NOAA CRSRA Licensing". 2018. Nesdis.Noaa.Gov.

  8. "Office Of Commercial Space Transportation". 2018. Faa.Gov.

  9. "Outer Space Treaty". 2018. U.S. Department Of State.

  10. "Space Fence · Lockheed Martin". 2018. Lockheedmartin.Com.

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