Fri 06 Aug 2021

New Space Industry Regulations Blast the UK Commercial Space Sector Forward at the Speed of Light

The dawn of a new age is upon us. A new regulatory framework for the UK space industry allows for spaceflight and satellite launches to lift off from the UK. Key to this are the Space Industry Regulations 2021 which implement the Space Industry Act 2018 by putting in place a regulatory regime for spaceflight operations carried out in the UK. 

The Space Industry Regulations are, in fact, part of a wider package. Following an earlier consultation period which ran from July to October 2020, the Space Industry Regulations 2021, the Space Industry (Appeals) Regulations 2021, the Spaceflight Activities (Investigation of Spaceflight Accidents) Regulations 2021 and the Contracting Out (Functions in Relation to Space) Order 2021 all came into force on 29 July 2021.  

The package of regulations paves the way for the first spaceflight and satellite launches from the UK and enables the licensing of launch, return, orbital, spaceport, and range control activities. The Department for Transport estimates that the new regulatory framework for the space industry has the potential to unlock £4 billion of market opportunities over the next decade. The new regulations are also intended to keep the public safe, protect the environment and safeguard national security.  

Currently, there are no spaceports anywhere in Europe and typically companies based in Europe will use spaceports in Russia or the USA for launches. However, with the introduction of the new UK regulations, the UK Government hopes that the first spaceport in the UK will allow for launches as soon as summer 2022. This would make the UK the first country to launch into orbit from Europe.  

The chance to launch spaceflights and satellites from home soil provides opportunities to monitor climate change and weather patterns more closely and to gather improved data for satellite navigation systems. The new regulations will allow for space tourism trips to launch from the UK in the future, such as those recently undertaken by billionaires Jeff Bezos (SpaceX) and Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic).

Spaceports in Scotland

Several spaceport projects are already underway in Scotland, including in South Ayrshire, Argyll, the Outer Hebrides, Shetland and Sutherland which have the capacity to create hundreds of new jobs in a variety of areas. In addition to creating new job opportunities in local communities, the UK Government hopes that the introduction of the new regulations will demonstrate that the UK is open for business and will help attract international companies to capitalise on the new commercial opportunities in the UK space sector.

Regulatory framework
  • The UK Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA) has been formally appointed as regulator of the UK space industry and it has already announced that it is ready to assess applications for launch licences.
  • UK Government comments on the new regulations states that they are not intended to enforce prescriptive and detailed operating requirements that have been traditionally implemented in the aviation sector. Instead, launch operators and spaceports will be required to demonstrate to the UK CAA that they have managed any risks to an acceptable level and risks are as low as reasonably practicable. This provides for flexibility enabling a wider range of current and future spaceflight innovations to be assessed by the UK CAA.  
  • The regulations address complex issues of insurance and liability, which will be key to the commercialisation of the space sector. The UK Government has made it clear in its guidance to industry partners that no firm will face unlimited liability (except where an operator is guilty of gross negligence or wilful misconduct or where the operator has not complied with its licence conditions or legislative requirements) and that the regulatory framework will remain under review in order to adapt to the growing space sector.  In terms of the insurance, the requirements outlined for all missions will be proportionate to the risk and importantly, they will be affordable, so as not to deter companies from conducting their business in the UK.
  • In terms of the environmental impact of the growing space sector, the UK Government has made it clear that spaceflight activities must not unduly impact the natural and built environment. Launch operators and spaceports are required to complete an assessment of environmental effects of their proposed activities and may be required to mitigate any risks.

The flexibility of the new space sector regulations does leave scope for contentious issues to arise. However, there is no doubt that the regulations take a giant leap in supporting the growth of the UK space sector in a sustainable and secure way while simultaneously demonstrating the UK Government’s commitment to making the UK an attractive location to host commercial launch services and a global power in the space industry.

This article was co-written by Clare Tuohy.

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