Thursday 29 July 2021 4:09 pm

New frontier: UK renews outdated space policies as giants seek commercial travel

The UK is set to start regulating commercial space travel from today, as an increasing number of companies look to capitalise on the race to the stars.

Before appointing its first-ever space travel regulator, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA), the global legal framework surrounding commercial space travel appeared a relic of the Cold War era.

“The legal framework governing outer space was promulgated in the midst of the Cold War, in a tense political climate and in an age when the peaceful and common use of outer space was the most important motivation,” partner at law firm Mayer Brown, Rachael O’Grady, told City A.M.

Space travel was previously a venture only possible for states themselves, with entire economies as backing – but the recent embarkments from Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have proven that it is increasingly the realm of corporate giants.

“Now, private entities are the principal users of outer space,” she added, “A far cry from the 1960s when it was only accessible to governments and state entities.”

O’Grady explained that although such private missions have been so far successful, there had been a lack of regulation to account for the wildly different corporate environment of the 21st century.

Space commercialisation

“The lack of up-to-date regulation here not only poses a problem for those seeking to commercially exploit space, and those seeking to prevent such commercialisation in the absence of proper regulation but it also means that other issues such as space waste and the deterioration of the outer-space environment, are becoming an increasingly worrying inevitability,” she said.

There have been attempts to correct this, however, particularly by larger economies like the US and the UK.

But the UK’s legislation had until today left it to the goodwill of commercial companies, like Scottish rocket builder Skyrora who pledged earlier this year to tackle space debris from 2023.

“Efforts by some space-faring nations, particularly richer countries, have seen the adoption of legislation that grants legal rights to their own nationals in outer space,” O’Grady added.

“For example, under US law, private operators who extract resources from the moon, or asteroids, will legally own those findings. The international legality of such laws is highly questionable. They have potential echoes of “finders, keepers” or, even, piracy.”

The UK has now outlined new regulations, angled towards science, which will see it become the first country in Europe with the ability to launch spacecraft and satellites from its soil.

Safety incidents involving space flights in or over the UK will be investigated by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, the body which already examines aviation accidents.

Though domestic regulation has finally been updated to fit a new era, the framework is still in its early stages and will inevitably require more work.

Policy evolution

Government affairs lead at Skyrora, Alan Thompson, told City A.M.: “These regulations have been developed over the last two years and have experienced extensive industry consultation over a period of four months to take into account the UK space sectors commercial launch activities.”

While commercial space launch activities have been discussed in a few elements of these first stages of spaceflight regulation, the framework focuses on Earth observation launches and telecommunication satellites, Thompson explained.

This is due in part to the UK’s current focus on jumping into the satellite market for scientific purposes rather than commercial, with human spaceflight still “a few years off” being a regular occurrence in the country.

“That said, these regulations will allow for evolution and refinement which could cater for human spaceflight in the future.

“It is not about simply putting a man into space but highlighting to UK authorities and the public that investment into the space sector can have real benefits to our economy for years to come,” he said.

UK space travel regulations are also yet to address foreign investments in the commercial sphere, which could usher in another league into the space race.

While eyeing the environmental benefits ahead of the UN’s COP26 in November – which the UK will host – the government could use the flagship climate conference to boast its new post-Brexit selling point to the 51 attending countries.

“The UK is looking to establish itself as an environmental launch hub and so we hope this unique selling point may become attractive for foreign investors in the future,” Thompson added.

Much like all UK space firms, Skyrora is set to increase its engagement with the legislative process, to ensure these regulations are “fit for purpose”.

“Working with the spaceflight regulator, we have ensured the legal framework is robust and covers the vast majority of regulatory conditions for commercial space launch activities.”

But while the UK has updated its domestic policy, there remains a significant gap in a universal, international framework, leaving the sector open to companies who could wrongfully exploit it.