While reading this question, I was interested to learn that the NOAA requires a permit for any entity to film the earth from space. Is there any reason why such a policy is in place?

Note: This question is specifically about WHY this rule is in place, not about the recent falcon 9 launch that made use of this regulation.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Why would NOAA restrict the ability of SpaceX to live stream the second stage? $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Mar 30, 2018 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Tristan Mine is not a duplicate. I specifically intended it to be about WHY this rule was in place. $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Mar 31, 2018 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ This seems like a reasonable follow-up question, directed at the underlying reasons and justifications for the rule to have been created. I don't see a good answer to this question there, so it does not appear to me to be a duplicate. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 4, 2018 at 4:51
  • $\begingroup$ Related theverge.com/2018/4/5/17197742/… $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 5, 2018 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ "They thought they owned the light!" $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2020 at 16:51

2 Answers 2


Why does the NOAA require a permit to be issued to stream images of the earth?

It's not just streaming. It includes all mechanisms for taking images of the Earth from space and somehow having that imagery get back to Earth.

Why do these regulations exist? One reason is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. This treaty, to which the US is a party, deems that governments are responsible for any and all actions in space. In particular, the treaty says that "the activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate state party to the treaty."

Another reason for such regulations is that the US government has a vested interest in protecting national security and in preventing international incidents. Imagery captured by an unscrupulous, unregulated company could easily threaten national security or provoke an international incident.

Why NOAA? IN 1992, the US Congress assigned responsibility for licensing private remote sensing space systems to the Department of Commerce, which in turn assigned responsibility to NOAA as the part of Commerce that came closest to having expertise in this area.

Why SpaceX? NOAA issued a statement on the broadcast of the SpaceX Iridium-5 launch. The second paragraph in that statement is key:

Now that launch companies are putting video cameras on stage 2 rockets that reach an on-orbit status, all such launches will be held to the requirements of the law and its conditions.

This appear to me that somebody at NOAA belatedly realized that second stages of commercial launches, with the second stage outfitted with cameras whose primary intent is to observe the spacecraft itself, nonetheless qualify as "private remote sensing space systems" should the Earth come into view. The regulations NOAA is required to enforce deems any private space operation that captures imagery of the Earth in any form to be a private remote sensing space system. The resolution or the quality of the captured Earth imagery is not mentioned in the regulations.


The National and Commercial Space Programs Act (NCSPA) says:

It is unlawful for any person who is subject to the jurisdiction or control of the United States, directly or through any subsidiary or affiliate to operate a private remote sensing space system without possession of a valid license issued under the Act and the regulations.

You can find that law here. NOAA handles getting a license under that act, etc,; the documentation of that process is here.

A recent Wired article covers the background. Apparently, the US Congress thought that there should be national security restrictions on what could be imaged from space. I doubt that they considered this kind of footage, though, so perhaps this is a recent NOAA overreach.

Eric Berger has recently posted an Ars Technica article about this, too. He thinks that there's no real good reason:

These NOAA regulations were enacted to prevent individuals from launching and flying their own personal spy satellites in space. However, as astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell pointed out on Twitter, it is not clear what national security rationale there is for controlling cameras on the second stage of SpaceX rockets.

and then discusses some other, more speculative possibilities.

And now NOAA has issued a statement that says they really did put a restriction in place, but doesn't say why.

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    $\begingroup$ I suspect the regulation of the F9 upper stage is a bit of a "use it or loose it" attitude towards regulation, where if they turn a blind eye to things that are within the specification of the law they will face additional challenges in future attempts to regulate payloads, even if this use isn't within the actual spirit of the law. $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Mar 30, 2018 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ NOAA's governing regulations (nesdis.noaa.gov/CRSRA/files/…) limit the scope: "For purposes of the regulations in this part, a licensed system consists of a finite number of satellites and associated facilities". That "satellites" term separately has a general definition that rules out anything not in a "permanent" orbit, alternately a "stable orbit", i.e. a launch vehicle. What might be new is that the Falcon 2nd stage does achieve a "stable orbit" for Iridium insertion, hence the signal cutoff. $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2018 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ Second stage always achieves a stable orbit before deployment though, so the payload has at least a few days for checkouts and orbit raising. So the enforcement here is new, not the mission parameters. $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Mar 30, 2018 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Saiboogu It appears to be more than that. NOAA's statement says they put conditions on the license for this flight. That raises the question of why... $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2018 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ The 'why' is included in this answer as well. I see a great many people arguing against the national security excuse. I understand the application of it is a bit absurd, but that literally is the 'why' of it. $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Mar 31, 2018 at 13:07

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