The UK’s new space regulation is a silent success story which will fuel the UK’s drive to participate in the commercial space race says Spencer West Partner Andrew Sparrow

28 November 2022

When Virgin Orbit flies its LauncherOne vehicle – using a modified Boeing 747 as an aerial platform from Newquay’s Spaceport Cornwall facility, its payload of individual satellites to Low Earth Orbit will be the first space launch from the UK.

However, it is possible only because new regulations in this country, in force since July 2021, have been crafted following years of consultation.

According to Spencer West commercial space lawyer Andrew Sparrow, it is a model for how to carefully align enabling laws with the needs of a rapidly evolving industry to ensure regulation liberates commercial space activity in the UK.

He explained: ‘To conduct even a horizontal launch of the kind which is imminent in Cornwall inevitably requires compliance with a raft of new laws – and these are largely a series of operational licences governing each component of the mission. The flight needs a Launch operator licence, an Orbital operator licence, a licence for range control services, and a Spaceport licence – and each participant in the effort has to meet stringent compliance obligations to ensure safety and environmental considerations are addressed.’

‘The Space Industry Act 2018 regulates all spaceflight activities carried out in the United Kingdom, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), through its new Safety and Airspace Regulation Group, is the regulator.’

‘Behind the scenes there will have been extensive and coordinated work and dialogue between Virgin Orbit, the satellite operators and Space Port Newquay to ensure the inaugural and historic launch can be delivered in compliance with the new laws.’

He continued: ‘I think what should be applauded is the speed at which the regulatory landscape has been implemented in support of the commercial investment being made. Law is often seen as a barrier to entrepreneurship – but with inherently high-risk endeavours of the kind shortly to launch in this country, the law obviously must ensure safety – but it must also serve to facilitate. This is what the new laws achieves.’

‘A review of the new licencing regime reveals a carefully considered procedure which starts with a voluntary pre-application engagement, where prospective applicants for licences are encouraged to engage with the CAA before submitting an application for a licence under the Act, followed by the application itself, comprehensive monitoring of the mission profile, and finally enforcement.’

‘I think the significance of this first launch cannot be overstated as it paves the way for many more, both from Virgin Orbit and a variety of launch providers. It will make possible lower cost access to space and the orbital parameters available to a UK launch make our meaningful participation in space activity – beyond an already very successful satellite manufacture competence – a reality for the first time.’

Mr Sparrow said that it is important to recognise that the launch can also draw attention to downstream players in the emerging commercial space sector in the UK. He explained that as access to space is more easily secured, the potential for new technologies and businesses engaged in subsystem development is enhanced. This is going to be vital to break down the perceived barriers among current non-space orientated businesses, to space technology, and in turn, enlarge the emerging new space industry in the coming years.

He concluded: ‘It is clear a great deal of work has gone into making this flight possible, but it is an example of active cooperation between the regulators and the operators which signals a new era for the UK – and it is a dynamic example of how the law can promote innovation and not simply inhibit.’

A version of this article was published in The Law Society Gazette (pg.38).

Andrew Sparrow
Senior Counsel – Corporate and Commercial, IT, IP, Artificial Intelligence, Data Protection and Commercial Aerospace
Andrew Sparrow is one of the Senior Counsel at Spencer West. He specialises in corporate and commercial, healthcare, automotive, biotechnology, fintech, fashion, software, film, sports and digital media.