The Air Force has begun an investigation to find the source of news leaks about the secret payload of the space shuttle mission launched yesterday, Defense Department spokesman Michael I. Burch said.

The investigation is one of several the Pentagon is conducting into news leaks, Burch said yesterday. He said the inquiries are aimed at finding the officials or contractor employes who provided information and not at news organizations.

"In our government, the protection of information belongs on our side of the fence," Burch said. "So we are naturally concerned about the unauthorized release of information."

Asked about a photograph of an early-warning satellite published on the most recent cover of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Burch said that such a picture "should not appear." But the Pentagon later acknowledged that the Air Force had given the photograph to Aviation Week after it had been "appropriately reviewed and determined to be unclassified."

Retired general Richard G. Stilwell, the Pentagon's chief leak-hunter, has said that his office investigates about five news leaks each month. Stilwell, deputy undersecretary for policy, said those investigations have met with "indifferent success," never catching the leaker and only once narrowing the list of suspects enough to justify the use of lie detectors.

Burch did not say what action the government would take if it could identify those who leaked information in the case of the space shuttle.

The U.S. government last year arrested a civilian Navy analyst who allegedly sold a classified photograph of a Soviet ship to Jane's Defence Weekly, a British publication. The analyst was charged with espionage, although he is not alleged to have cooperated with a foreign government.

The shuttle launched yesterday is the first all-military mission since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began the program. Brig. Gen. Richard F. Abel, director of public affairs for the Air Force, last month warned reporters not to speculate about the shuttle's cargo and said that any speculations would be investigated.

Two days later, The Washington Post reported that the shuttle would launch an intelligence satellite intended to eavesdrop over the Soviet Union. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said then that the Post story may have given "aid and comfort to the enemy."

Abel later told a journalism class at the University of Georgia that little or nothing in the Post story was previously unavailable from public sources, according to several people in the class.

But he said later that only "some" of the information was previously available, and Burch said yesterday that leaks about the shuttle were "particularly damaging to national security."

Aviation Week's Jan. 21 issue describes the Pentagon's next generation of early-warning surveillance satellites, which monitor missile and spacecraft launches from Soviet territory and will be protected against Soviet laser weapons. The magazine shows an artist's conception of one such satellite, and a photograph of a current-generation early-warning spacecraft. It also describes Teal Ruby, a satellite "with an infrared sensor designed to track aircraft from space . . . expected to be deployed in polar orbit" by a shuttle next year.

The photograph, which Burch said should not have been published, was released by the Air Force Space Command. The Pentagon said that it "cannot vouch for the accuracy of any additional information" in the magazine.

William H. Gregory, editor-in-chief of the weekly, said that the artist's painting and the article were based on "perfectly straightforward reporting."