The UK's fledgling commercial space industry is facing numerous hurdles
Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
On the windswept heathlands of Unst in the Shetland Islands, Britain’s small but ambitious space programme has finally begun to take shape.
Here, in the most northerly inhabited island of Great Britain, the first commercial space launches from UK soil are scheduled to lift off in May 2022.
But there remains a significant hurdle that could ground these pioneering flights: the Government’s failure to set a cap on sector liabilities.
Space liabilities help cover the cost of a satellite crashing down to Earth or damaging another satellite in orbit. The liabilities agreed with rocket companies indicate how much cost the business will take on in the event of an accident, and, if it goes over this limit, whether the state would have to take on the cost.
The Government is planning to pass the Space Industry Regulations 2021 later this year. However, the wording used in the regulations means there is currently no clear cap on liabilities.
Industry executives are now growing increasingly worried that the legislation will potentially leave them on the hook for hundreds of millions of pounds per launch.
“When I asked about this I was told: ‘Well we have the best regulation in the world, of course it will be more expensive’,” one space industry source fumes.
For small rocket companies, such as Edinburgh-headquartered Skyrora, it is proving an unexpected headache.
Skyrora launches a static fire test of the Skylark-L from Kildermorie Estate
“We wanted this to be an opportunity rather than a pain,” says Alan Thompson, its head of government affairs.
Rocket firms are still waiting for launch licences, which are due to be handled by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Under the current plans, the CAA will agree to liabilities on a case-by-case basis. Each operator will take on a level of risk for disasters on launch or in-orbit collisions, after which the Government will step in.
But with no confirmed maximum cap, rocket companies have complained they face a struggle convincing customers to take a punt on the UK when they may end up footing more of the bill than they had bargained for.
In addition to this, there is a further liability for every satellite launched.
Currently, that is set at up to €60m (£51m). But industry figures are concerned this applies to each individual satellite, meaning a launch of a dozen small satellites, each weighing only a few kilograms, could land firms with hundreds of millions of pounds of risk.
“They are the size of a tin can,” says Skyrora’s Thompson, “don’t tell me that is causing €60m worth of damage.”
The Government is understood to be reviewing the €60m liability for satellite launches.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “No launch or satellite operator will face unlimited liability. Insurance policies have been drawn up following in-depth consultation with stakeholders and we will continue those conversations as we build towards this bold new future of space travel.”
The CAA and UK Space Agency did not comment. However, in a recent presentation to industry, the agency said: “Operators will not face unlimited third-party liability.”
Despite such assurances, space chiefs want to see more concrete action from the Government, which has ambitions to capture 10pc of the global space market by 2030.
There is still a long road ahead to achieving that goal. The last rocket built in the UK was the Black Arrow, which last flew from a site in Australia in 1971.
Skyrora is one UK company that hopes to change that. Its planned 72ft XL rocket will be able to boost satellites up to 620 miles high, although so far it has only launched its smaller Skylark Nano rocket for suborbital flights.
Development is well under way on a series of other rocket hubs for launching small satellites into orbit. These include Spaceport Cornwall, which will be the home to Virgin Orbit.
Sir Richard Branson’s service will launch rockets from under the wings of flying a Boeing 747.
There is also Sutherland Spaceport, where British firm Orbex is hoping to launch rockets that will use a biofuel 90pc cleaner than traditional kerosene.
With the hope that the starting gun can be fired on UK rocket launches from next year, MPs have urged that the planned regulations be amended.
In a report in May, Conservative MPs Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and George Freeman warned the liabilities could mean “UK licence holders will struggle to attract sufficient investment or obtain insurance”.
The completed Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket hangs from the wing of Cosmic Girl, a special Boeing 747 aircraft that is used as the rocket's 'flying launch pad'
Credit: Greg Robinson/Virgin Orbit via AP
The UK’s policy means Britain itself is not taking on too much of that burden. But other nations have lower liability caps. In the US many missions are indemnified by its space agency Nasa.
“While this will ensure the UK is fully protected in a very risky sector, it will inevitably cause uncertainty for UK space companies,” says Rachael O’Grady, a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown.
Some in the UK launch sector want a clear cap, rather than a cap determined on a case-by-case basis. Skyrora’s Thompson says: “If we are trying to attract foreign investment, we could say £40m or £20m for satellites, that would be a very positive option.”
Earlier this year, a private report from trade body UKspace carried warnings from 11 companies including OneWeb, Airbus and Intelsat that called for clarity over the issue of liabilities.
Some in the industry have been critical of the UK space sector’s new regulatory set up, which will see the Civil Aviation Authority take over launch control. “The CAA are new to this,” one source says.
But other launch operators are less concerned. Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, says: “Safety is the regulator’s number one concern. They consult with us and give us advice, but it is not their job to be our buddy.
“Rocket launches are an unknown quality for the UK. Obviously the CAA doesn’t want to make a mistake.”
With wrangling over liabilities unresolved, Britain’s space sector will have to wait a little longer before it is ready for blast off.