COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As it waits for newly published changes to the U.S. space technology export regime to take effect in six months, the U.S. government could further tweak the rules on imaging satellite hardware depending on how a separate debate on commercial remote sensing policy shakes out, officials said here May 20.

The pending changes will transfer a host of space-related items from the U.S. Munitions List, a registry of weapons technologies whose exports are tightly controlled by the U.S. Department of State under a one-size-fits-all process, to the Commerce Control List, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The changes are expected to make it easier for U.S. companies to export space-related hardware that is widely available on the international market while strengthening U.S. controls on the most sensitive technologies and systems.

The interim final rules for Category 15 of the Munitions List, published May 13 by the State Department, keep on the list remote sensing systems with apertures larger than 35 centimeters.

However, Lou Ann McFadden, chief of the Strategic Issues Division of the Defense Technology Security Administration, said the government will spend the next six months reviewing that decision. That review, she said, will depend in part on potential changes to commercial remote sensing policy that would allow companies to sell imagery with resolutions better than the current limit of 50 centimeters.

“These two items are kind of linked together,” McFadden said during an export reform workshop here at the 30th Space Symposium. “As we work out possibly changing or updating commercial imagery release rules, then we’re going to start to look at the export rules to make sure that they align.”

The capabilities of an imaging system with a 35-centimeter aperture depend on a variety of factors, such as the orbit the satellite is in, said Mike Conschafter of Exelis, a manufacturer of such systems. “You can get submeter [resolution] with a 35-centimeter system,” he said.

U.S. satellite imaging companies currently are barred from selling imagery with better than 50-centimeter resolution, which can distinguish objects that size or larger, to non-U.S. government customers. However, citing international competition, imagery provider DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colorado, has asked the government to modify its operating license to permit it to sell imagery with 30-centimeter resolution on the open market.

DigitalGlobe’s request, which has been heartily endorsed by the U.S. intelligence community, is under review by the White House.

The aperture limit review is the last major piece of unfinished business for the long-running export control reform effort. Most of the rules published May 13 take effect 180 days after publication, a period designed to give companies time to implement the new rules.

Eric L. Hirschhorn, undersecretary of commerce for industry and security, said the 180-day waiting period is a compromise between companies that wanted the rules to go into effect immediately and others that wanted a delay of up to several years.

An exception to the 180-day waiting period has been made for radiation-hardened microelectronics, where the new rules will take effect in just 45 days. “The rad-hardened chip industry has let us know how fast their technology is moving” and worried that a longer waiting period could cause new items to fall under the existing Category 15 restrictions of the Munitions List, Hirschhorn said.

The final rule leaves on the Munitions List satellite servicing technologies, as well as human-rated commercial spacecraft, McFadden said.

Following the release of the draft new rules last year, industry sought to have these technologies included among the items to be transferred to the Commerce Control List. McFadden said, however, that the Defense Department was concerned that those technologies could be used for anti-satellite or delivery of weapons of mass destruction, and thus elected to keep them on the Munitions List. The rule of thumb in making that decision was that if the system in question can maneuver in space, it remains under the control of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, she said.

While the final rule, which does move most commercial satellites and related components off the Munitions List, has been hailed as a major victory for export control reform, Hirschhorn cautioned that the new regime will require companies to devote more resources to ensuring they are in compliance.

“A more nuanced system, unfortunately but necessarily, means a more complex system,” he said. “Export control reform will help your business, but you almost certainly will need to dedicate additional resources to the important task of compliance.”


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Jeff Foust has more than a decade of experience writing about space policy, entrepreneurial ventures and regulatory affairs. In 2001, he established to aggregate and summarize the day's space-related news stories. In 2003, he started The...