British spaceports and commercial developments

10th July 2024

Earth rise

In January last year, Virgin Orbit was able to conduct the UK’s first orbital launch. This was not an unmitigated success; the satellites on board were not placed in orbit due to engine failure. However, it was a sign of potential successes to come.

Since that launch from Cornwall, approval has been granted for vertical launches to take place from the Scottish island of Unst, the first site in Western Europe to be approved for vertical launches. Launches are expected to start later this year and into 2025 by a range of different operators once the final hurdles are met, including the final operator licences.

Government regulation and support has been key. The Space Industry Act 2018 (“the Act”) is the key legislation and governs the key responsibilities of operators and the role to be played by a variety of regulators, including the Civil Aviation Authority and the UK Space Agency’s Office of Regulation.

A report in December 2023, the “Lessons Learned Report” from the UK Space Agency’s Launch Programme (“the report”), highlighted a number of concerns with the system as is. While the previous government was keen to promote the sector, it is currently growing faster than the wider economy and the global space industry, complex regulation was criticised.

This was especially clear in the need for licences – four key ones – and associated permits relating to planning permission and airspace. The report recommended improved co-ordination and knowledge sharing between government agencies to avoid duplication in the information required, improved guidance to reduce delay and clear areas of responsibility.

Due to the international nature of space launches, the report also called for increased co-ordination with European partners to manage airspace requirements and relationships with other transport authorities.

One of the key areas of the report focused on the Act’s approach to insurance and liability.

Significantly for operators, and their legal advisors, is the need to understand their obligations to have insurance in place and indemnify the government.

The Act requires operators to indemnify the government and third parties against loss and damage; there will be cases of strict liability. The report recommended an upper cap in order to keep costs reasonable and certain.

The outgoing government published a Space Regulatory Review in May which recognised a number of the concerns raised by the report, especially the need to allow growth and innovation, including the potential for AI, through clear guidance and regulation.

The incoming Labour government has promised to focus on economic growth, including reducing planning restrictions for industry and close partnership with business. Whether this will extend to the space sector remains to be seen, but it is clear that operators would benefit from working closely with government to determine regulation and economic priorities.

A key marker of the success of this nascent British industry will be launches made over the next 12 months and whether the new government continues the support of the previous.

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