UK risks failure with push into space flight, says industry

Flawed regulation and high costs threaten to cripple the UK’s ambition to become a force in commercial space flight, according to industry executives, who warned they will license their missions abroad if proposed rules are implemented.

Executives said the UK regulations issued by the government failed to set a clear and binding cap on sector liabilities for rocket launches from British soil, or any potential damage on earth from satellites falling out of orbit.

The regulations due to take effect this summer are meant to mark the final stage of preparations to fulfil Britain’s ambition to be the first country to launch satellites into orbit from Europe.

But the proposed rules are a major setback to years of campaigning by space industry executives and insurers.

The wording of the regulations, which must be approved by parliament, leaves open the possibility that space companies could be exposed to unlimited risk.

This would make it impossible to secure insurance or to set competitive pricing for launch services in the UK, said industry executives. 

The regulations put before parliament last month by the government stated that a liability limit “may” be set, but did not specify a cap, as is the norm in most space faring nations. 

Many of these nations have set a liability cap, some as low as $20m per licence, with governments then committed to take on any further risk.

Two British companies which asked not to be named told the Financial Times they had decided to seek launch licences in other countries because of the lack of UK regulatory clarity.

The proposed rules are “just a non starter”, said one leading space company. “We won’t even talk about the issue of licensing in the UK until that is fixed,” it added.

The government has insisted space companies will not face unlimited liability, and indicated it will make a statement in parliament.

It has said the Civil Aviation Authority will determine companies’ liabilities on a case-by-case basis under the UK regulations.

Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said it was clear that liability caps were necessary, but he could not say when, how, or at what level they would be set.

The priority was for the regulations to be approved by parliament to enable launches from UK soil next year, he added. 

Neil Stevens, head of space projects at insurance broker Marsh, said a parliamentary statement by the government was not sufficient.

“When people are making the decision to come to the UK they won’t look at Hansard to see what a minister has said in parliament,” he added. “They will go to the legislation and say there isn’t a cap.” 

Alan Thompson, head of government affairs at UK rocket company Skyrora, said the promise of a statement in parliament showed the government was beginning to get the message.

“But without these issues being resolved successfully there is a serious risk to commercial launch from the UK,” he added.

Spaceports are being developed in England, Wales and Scotland, with the first launch due in 2022 — two years later than initially planned.

The UK has targeted a 10 per cent share of the global space industry by 2030, up from 5.1 per cent — or £16.4bn in revenues — in 2019. Last year Britain became part owner of satellite broadband company OneWeb.

Meanwhile, a confidential document prepared by UKspace, the industry trade body, and dated two weeks before the regulations were put before parliament in May, sets out the concerns raised by space companies over the proposed licensing framework. 

The document cites 11 companies including Airbus, Intelsat, Spire Global, Orbex and OneWeb calling for an official, legally binding statement from the government that a liability cap would be applied to all launch licences. Companies also said the actual level of liability should be clarified.

Rocket companies are also frustrated with the proposed timescale for UK licensing, which is set to be more protracted and so more costly than other countries.

The indications were that the process could take nine to 18 months, said one executive. “That is not really competitive,” he said. “The US . . . is committing to a 180 day turnround.”

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