The UK is on a mission to join the world’s commercial space race, writes Chris Gibbs, head of space, AmTrust at Lloyd’s
The UK government recently announced at the Farnborough International Airshow that Sutherland, on the A’Mhoine Peninsula in the Scottish Highlands, will be the site of the country’s first vertical-launch spaceport. The future spaceport will launch small satellites into polar orbit.
Home to miles of sparsely populated countryside, Scotland’s north coast was an easy choice for the UK Space Agency, which also runs the UK’s civil space programme. The consortium behind the Sutherland bid includes Lockheed Martin, the United States’ largest defense contractor.
The UK government will provide Highlands and Islands Enterprise with £2.5m in initial funding to develop the launch site. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has been fueling Scotland’s economic recovery and fostering sustainable growth across the region since 1991.
The government has awarded grants totaling £33.5m to operators and local enterprise agencies to develop vertical-launch capabilities in Great Britain per the Financial Times.
One bill, endless opportunities
The Scottish satellites will start bursting through the atmosphere as soon as 2020 thanks to the Space Industry Bill. Recently signed into law, the Space Industry Bill establishes a framework for the regulation of spaceflight activities in the UK.
The legislation also establishes: a system of licensing for UK space activities; powers for the secretary of state to appoint a regulator to ensure public safety; new offenses and applies existing UK criminal law to space activities; and a framework for liability, indemnities and insurance for UK space activities.
Changing planes and economic forecasts
The UK isn’t limiting itself to just one way of thinking. In addition to vertical-launch sites, horizontal-launch sites are also being planned in Cornwall, Glasgow and North Wales. These spaceports will have runways used by space planes to carry future satellites and tourists.
Spaceport Cornwall has already teamed up with California-based Virgin Orbit, with designs to air-launch satellites using a modified Boeing 747 jet. The English-American partnership is estimated to create as many as 480 jobs and contribute
£25m a year to the local economy, according to the Cornwall government. The first launches could happen as soon as 2021.
Anticipation and revenue are destined to skyrocket, as the spaceports supporting both kinds of launches could be worth £3.8bn to the UK economy over the next decade, according to the UK Space Agency.
Looking to be a major player in the growing commercial space industry, the UK government aims to increase its share of the £40bn global space sector from 6.5 percent to 10 percent by 2030.
Sky-high expectations – and risks
With new opportunity comes new risk, and industry stakeholders find themselves concerned about the absence of a mandatory cap on liability for space operators.
The language in the new legislation appears to counter an amendment to the 1986 Outer Space Act made in 2015, which imposed a £60m cap on the amount which spaceflight companies are required to indemnify the government.
Instead of a fixed number, the government proposals reserve the option to cap liability on a case-by-case basis to reflect the development of new technology. Without a cap, assessing and adequately insuring the risks could be a daunting prospect for those covering these interstellar enterprises.
The bottom line: There can’t be any grey area as to how liability for launches would be shared if the private sector were able to access affordable insurance. Once the details are ironed out, the UK will be positioned to join the space race as major players