The space secrets edition

Dear readers,

Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extra-terrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: Meet Jacky Li, the secrets of Area 51, and the big booms in Boca Chica.

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My experience with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations regime typically involves proving I’m a US citizen before visiting some satellite factory or rocket test site. High-tech space stuff is “dual-use” technology, which means it can be used to make a communications satellite—or an ICBM. If you’re not a US citizen, you can’t visit these firms, nor work there.

So when my colleague Justin Rohrlich—a voracious prowler of federal databases—came across a criminal complaint involving smuggled aerospace parts, I had to help out. This week, we reported the must-read story. It tracks Chinese efforts to steal radiation-hardened microchips and highly-precise accelerometers, the undercover agents who tried to stop them, and a brash middle-man named Jacky Li.

A federal prosecutor who has worked several of these cases in recent years told us there is “a consistent shopping list” sought by many different characters, from greedy engineers and duped students to professional smugglers, that make authorities suspect China’s military is the ultimate destination for these controlled goods.

This time around, a group of undercover Homeland Security investigators played a digital cat-and-mouse game with a Hong Kong-based buyer seeking the US-made parts. The agents lured Li, an associate of the buyer, to Hawaii, where he was arrested. He’s since been released, but we’re still following the ongoing case, which remains under seal. We want to learn more about Li, the mysterious buyer back in Hong Kong, and an unnamed US company that agreed to sell them the restricted chips so long as they were shipped to someone in the US.

One little exclusive for newsletter readers: This is my favorite footnote on any legal document I’ve ever read, appended to a chat transcript after the putative parts buyer in Hong Kong confessed “we worry about FBI.”

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Speaking of top-secret aerospace activities, check out this Quartz obsession newsletter I wrote on the topic of Area 51. While the story is never aliens (shouts to Miriam Kramer), we have a fascinating tale of the US government’s “black” airplane program, which developed a variety of spy planes and stealthy fighters out in the Nevada desert.

In part, it’s the story of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the founder of Lockheed Martin’s famous “Skunk Works” design team. While he never built spacecraft, it’s the rare space engineer who can’t quote Kelly’s 14 rules, typically while complaining about all the bureaucracy that keeps ruining her brilliant ideas.

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Imagery interlude

Back in 1974, the astronauts on SkyLab were instructed not to photograph just one specific place on Earth. Yes, you guessed it: Area 51. The astronauts (who were not super into authority) took a photo anyway, which prompted a mini-meltdown of the classified establishment. That photo was never released, but here’s a snap taken a few days ago by one of Planet’s satellites. No aliens in sight, although this picture was taken in the daytime, and it’s well established that extra-terrestrials only come out at night.

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Image: Planet Labs Inc.

The Skylab controversy eventually landed on the desk (pdf) of the CIA’s director of central intelligence, who was nonplussed, writing  that “…I confessed some question over need to protect since:

  1. USSR has it from own sats
  2. What really does it reveal?
  3. If exposed, don’t we just say classified USAF work is done there?”

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Starship Status Report. The silver rocket being tested down in Boca Chica, Texas has been making waves since its first hop last month had locals worried about their windows. Business Insider’s Dave Mosher has been all over the Starhopper test story, pulling filings from the FAA that show how SpaceX’s plans for the site, which began as an alternate Falcon 9 launchpad in 2014, have changed. Now he reports that SpaceX is sending letters to nearby residents, offering to buy out their homes at three times their appraised value in order to meet various safety standards. Not a great look for the company’s advanced planning—or for Texas, which originally put up $15 million to lure SpaceX to the area.

Space Safety Coalition, Assemble! Much like Voltron, a group of satellite operators and related organizations have come together to found a new group focused on responsible satellite operation. Their best practices (pdf) have been endorsed by 21 organizations, ranging from newcomers like Planet and OneWeb to industry leaders like SES and Iridium. Notably absent? Many other mega-constellation proposers, including SpaceX and its Starlink constellation, Amazon’s Kuiper, and LeoSat.

Iridium’s out there making deals. A very brief satellite business update: Iridium signed a $739 million deal with the US military to continue providing secure communications. They also signed a memorandum of understanding to provide a joint communications network with OneWeb, one of the new firms promising to launch a mega-constellation of thousands of new communications satellites. Readers of last week’s newsletter won’t be surprised, given SES executive JP Hemingway’s musings about industry consolidation. Oh, and my little contribution? Here’s an exclusive: Microsoft and Ball Aerospace have landed a contract to pilot cloud computing for the Defense Department’s next-generation satellite plan, called CASINO, which is inspired by the big leaps being taken in the private sector.

Start-up Sync-up. The Los Angeles rocket-maker Relativity, which has developed some very advanced 3D printing technology on its way to flying satellites, announced a partnership with Momentus, a Silicon Valley-based company that has built a water-based space propulsion system. Basically, Relativity will take satellites into space on Momentus’ platform, which can then use its propulsion system to deliver the spacecraft to a bespoke orbit. Both firms hit their stride at Y Combinator, the VC firm-cum-incubator.

The latest Roscosmos mystery. Last year, a tiny hole in a Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft used to ferry crew to and from the International Space Station caused an international fracas. Russian space official Dmitry Rogozin, known for a positively Trumpian approach to public rhetoric, even speculated that intentional sabotage was the cause of the damage. A major anomaly during the next Soyuz flight to the ISS didn’t help matters. Now, Rogozin told “participants in a scientific youth conference” that Russia knows what caused the damage—and they aren’t going to tell. Great, great…now when are those commercial crew spacecraft going to be ready?

Your pal,


This was issue 15 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your best practices for space safety, personal experience with UFOS and extra-terrestrials, tips and informed opinions to