What is happening in the UK’s space sector?

The United Kingdom is currently in the process of revitalizing its space industry. It recently introduced its Space Industry Act 2018, paving the way for launches from Scotland. It furthermore signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement with the United States, which facilitates the trade of space technologies between the two countries. It also took a stake in OneWeb, a firm building a large constellation of communications satellites that was facing bankruptcy. To learn more about what is happening in the UK’s space sector, we spoke to Christopher Newman, a professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University in Newcastle. 

What are some recent developments in the UK’s legal and policy environment with regards to the space sector?

2020 has seen the UK government intensify its focus on the UK space sector from both a commercial and military standpoint. The hope is that the space industry will provide a boost to the manufacturing and space operations sector whilst expanding the revenue generated from space-based applications. The UK’s focus from legislative and policy standpoints has been the promulgation of regulations relating to UK spaceflight under the Space Industry Act 2018. The passing of the Act provided the statutory authority for the creation of a detailed regulatory regime for the launch of objects into space from UK territory. The Act itself did not contain much more than an outline of the new regime. Instead, much of the detail would be furnished by means of secondary legislation. The consultation has seen 900 pages of spaceflight regulations, appeals procedures, and accident investigation processes outlined to underpin UK ambitions to launch a commercial rocket from Scotland by the mid-2020s. 

Public consultation on the content of the regulations was accompanied by the completion of the Technology Safeguards Agreement with the United States. This treaty between the UK and the US was put in place to deal with difficulties regarding the import and export of rocket technology (which clearly has military applications) and the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which is designed to regulate the export of technology that might be used to threaten US national security. Addressing these two elements has put in place the legal infrastructure to support the return of sovereign launch capability to the UK. The UK now has two licensing regimes for space activity depending upon where the launch occurs.If the launch or satellite operations are conducted from facilities outside the UK, then the requisite license will be under the Outer Space Act 1986 and regulated by the UK Space Agency. Other activities within the UK will be authorized and licensed under the Space Industry Act 2018 by the Civil Aviation Authority. These activities include: the creation and operation of spaceports, range control, launches (both horizontal and vertical, orbital and sub-orbital), and other spaceflight activity.

The UK has also been active in the diplomatic field, with the introduction of a draft resolution on norms of behavior launched by the UK Ambassador to the UN Disarmament Committee. The resolution, entitled “Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours”, was introduced in August 2020. In October 2020, it was presented to the UN General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security. 

Finally, although not in the legal realm, the UK decided to purchase a significant financial stake in OneWeb and rescue the firm from bankruptcy proceedings. The UK government is working in partnership with Indian telecoms firm Bharti Global. The government announced that the constellation could be used to provide a position, navigation, and timing (PNT) service as an alternative to the European Union’s Galileo GNSS, the secure elements of which the UK will no longer be entitled to use following departure from the European Union. The Satellite Applications Catapult, a UK based tech company, is currently working on details of how this might be accomplished.

How do you think these developments will likely affect the UK space sector’s trajectory?

UK space activity is serving two distinct, but mutually beneficial aims. The first aim is to develop the UK space economy. In 2015, the government commissioned a report on the health and state of the UK space industry and, following on from this, stated an ambition to grow the UK’s share of the global space market to 10% by 2030. Accordingly, all of the activities of UK Space Agency flow from that. It is not certain what impact COVID-19 will have on this ambition – as in every other area of law and policy, the ripples in the pool caused by the pandemic are still being felt. 

The UK is committed to remaining within the European Space Agency (ESA) and UK companies remain active collaborators in a significant number of ESA projects. Also, the UK is making a significant budgetary contribution to ESA. The connection between the EU and ESA cannot be ignored. Although there are non-EU states who are members of ESA, Brexit will pose a significant challenge to the ongoing relationship of the UK with ESA. 

The second aim is broader but connected to Brexit: specifically using space (amongst other things) to reposition the UK as “Global Britain” following Brexit. The presentation of the draft resolution on norms of behavior is illustrative of the kind of positioning that the UK will try and adopt in the future. 

What are some areas of space policy or space law that will become more important in coming years?

From the perspective of the UK, I think there are two interlinked areas that will become more significant over the next few years. First, the development of the small satellite launch market. The UK, by trying to develop independent launch capacity, is looking to the space industry to provide increased economic stimulus. The way in which the UK chooses to deal with risk and liability in the new UK spaceflight regulations will be crucial. Industry is looking for as light a burden as possible, but the UK government will not be eager to take on additional liability given its commitments under the Liability Convention. 

The second area that will affect all space users is much broader. There needs to be a dramatic increase in our understanding and measurement of the orbital environment. Space situational awareness and the management of space traffic is already a key area of concern for the international community. This concern will only continue to grow as very large constellations increase the population of artificial satellites by a significant amount. The way in which regulatory authorities, national space agencies, and private sector actors manage this challenge will have a profound impact upon the way in which all nations can continue to enjoy unfettered access to space. A country like the UK, looking to position itself on the world stage through its space activity, should look to dramatically increase its space surveillance and tracking capacity. How all nations manage the increase in the orbital population will become increasingly important over the next few years.