An excerpt from the Space Industry Act 2018, published this month, makes for interesting reading.
“In subsection (2), the reference to a site in paragraph (b) of the definition of “spaceport” does not include an installation at sea that can be moved from place to place without major dismantling or modification.”
That line stands out, not perhaps from a legal standpoint, but for the loftiness of the ambitions outlined in the Act itself. Mobile marine-based spaceports is something more akin to Thunderbirds than the courtroom. But emerging fields require legal frameworks, and our profession has to adapt and help make sense of the new laws.
WHAT IS IN THE ACT?
The Act makes provisions for space activities and suborbital activities; and for connected purposes. Amongst other things, it clarifies that all offences that would be an offence if committed in the jurisdiction (the UK), to be an offence if committed on any space craft launched from this country. This is similar to the provisions that apply to ships and aeroplanes.
The legislation also covers necessities like spaceflight licensing, insurance requirements and safety commitments, which have become paramount in the age of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic where space is no longer a distant frontier, but one set to be commercialised in a way not seen before.
The Act is part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, which aims to develop the UK’s small satellite manufacturing industry into a global hub for satellite operations and technology – with access to space. They claim that it will create “hundreds of highly-skilled jobs” and result in “billions of bounds for the economy”.
The development of small satellite capability and affordability means that there is a growing market for low cost private launch facilities, and it is hoped that the Space Industry Act will facilitate the development and investment required for the UK’s first spaceport.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR UK COMPANIES?
For British companies, the Act will provide the legal means by which they can compete in the commercial space industry; whether that is launching small satellites into space or pioneering hypersonic flight.
The government backed projects that were mentioned on the same day as the Bill came into law ranged from using satellite data and machine learning technology to support the roll-out of charging points for electric vehicles, to deploying drones and satellites in the battle against marine waste.
With such areas, the law is required to both a) provide a regulatory framework for commercial and personal use and b) become a protective layer for matters of national security.
Regulation will be overseen by the Secretary of State or appointed representative and, where appropriate, the Civil Aviation Authority.
At this moment in time the legislation includes rather broad brushstrokes which should evolve over time as the capabilities of the technology are fully realised.
However, for most small operators and personal projects, it gives a starting point by which to understand the law and clarification of the licensing process for spaceflight activities.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
While the introduction of the Act is a good start, it might not be quite comprehensive enough. Many details still need to be ironed out in supplementary legislation before launches can take place.
For example, the law doesn’t include any mention of the €60 million liability cap, introduced in 2015, that limits an operator’s financial risk. Fundamentally, if a company launches a satellite which then causes a significant amount of damage, it is currently only liable to pay a maximum of €60 million towards the clean-up. These kind of caps are essential for private companies looking to secure investment and insurance.
As these considerations come to the fore, and the laws themselves are spruced up, we’ll see more and more discussion about how they tow the line between public safety and commercial interest.
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