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Space: Obstacles and Opportunities

19 November 2015 || 5 minute read

Title image is CubeSats being released from the international space station’s Kibo module on 4 October 2012 as photographed by an Expedition 33 crew member.

Applications of space data and technology today spread far beyond traditional users and operators in sectors such as national security and telecommunications, with space having a transformational impact on sectors as diverse as forestry, agriculture and the financial markets. Indeed, the UK’s space sector has set ambitious growth targets, aiming to capture 10% of the global market by 2020, estimated to be worth £40 Billion per year.

Space is already playing a transformational role in the stewardship of our planet, allowing us to monitor the Earth’s vital statistics for signs of climate change and for severe weather events, while also acting as an incubator for, and enabler of key green technologies of the future. Indeed, the potential of space and satellites in international development has been recognised recently by the World Bank for the role they can and do play in sustainable global development.

New commercial opportunities and business models are also emerging in the space sector. An example of this is through innovative and standardised nano-spacecraft platforms called CubeSats. These are being launched in seemingly ever increasing numbers in commercial, scientific and technology development missions.

An apparent extension of this standardised platform model is concepts such as the OneWeb and SpaceX broadband from space constellations. Some analysis feel it is “highly unlikely that you can make a successful business out of this”, stating that “it’s inconsistent with experience”, and pointing to previous similar concepts such as that by Teledesic in the late 1990’s. However, the ability of Motorola to produce a new Iridium satellite every 4.3 days in 1997/98 points to the model these companies seek to follow.

It will be critical to maintain this, or a higher rate of production over longer periods than Motorola managed if the full benefit of such production line development is to be realised. This is where CubeSats and concepts like OneWeb again diverge as CubeSats are building up volume from the bottom while the broadband constellations, which includes Iridium, require it from day 1.

With the emerging changes in the space sector it is becoming apparent that the regulatory framework developed when space fairing was largely the reserve of the Cold War Superpowers is no longer fit for purpose. At the same time, the space sector in the UK currently supports over 106000 jobs. Hence a suitable regulatory framework is of vital national importance today and in the future.

It is with this context that the Canada-UK council will meet tomorrow & Saturday to identify and discuss obstacles and opportunities within the space sector under the Chairmanship of The Rt. Hon. the Lord Willetts at the Technology & Innovation Centre of the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow.

Canada has a unique relationship with the European space community, being the only non-European country that is an Associate Member of the European Space Agency. The colloquium brings together members of the space community in the UK and Canada with senior policy makers and from across the governments of the UK, Scotland and Canada.

The colloquium will discuss a number of contemporary space related policy and regulatory issues. These will include the role of space in surveillance and security as well as its commercial potential. Our stewardship of the space environment and the ever growing problem of space debris will be discussed, as well as the use of space to monitor our environment on Earth, and the impact of the space environment, specifically the impact space weather has on life and technology on Earth, and in orbit.

It will also question how space should be governed, and how international treaties can remain relevant as space becomes increasingly commercial.

Within the UK regulation of space is a reserved matter within the devolution settlement and it is unclear whether full devolution of this would be possible due to international coordination activities required in, for example, radio spectrum allocation. However challenges exist that need solutions and it is possible that the partial devolution of regulation of space may offer an innovative way forward in both the UK and Canada.

The UK’s Outer Space Act, which regulates and licenses the launch and operation of UK space objects, requires licensees to gain insurance against “liability incurred in respect of damage or loss suffered by third parties.”

The level of this liability for new licensees was capped at €60 Million in October of this year. However, this even this level of insurance is proving to be financially challenging for the emerging space sector, especially the nano-satellite sector in which Glasgow and Scotland is leading the World through companies such as Clyde Space and Spire, and though the research activities of both the University of Strathclyde and Glasgow.

To illustrate this challenge as real, consider that in September Spire launched four spacecraft built in Glasgow on-board an Indian launch vehicle. However, these spacecraft were launched as US spacecraft rather than UK spacecraft due to, amongst other things, the issues of liability insurance within the UK.

At the UK level there is pressure to address the cost of liability insurance from the likes of Airbus, based in the south of England. However, the relative cost of this insurance on a £200 Thousand spacecraft from Clyde Space against a £200 Million spacecraft from Airbus is clearly significant.

The UK Space Agency has recently published a consultation paper on the regulation of CubeSats, which may further address the liability issue. However, at its core the €60 Million liability cap is a function of the UK governments risk posture. A risk against an international law that has no case law — in other words, a risk that has never been realised anywhere in the world.

Devolution of this aspect of the UK’s Outer Space Act, specifically the “liability incurred in respect of damage or loss suffered by third parties”, to the Scottish Government would allow them to adopt a different risk posture, and hence to set a different liability cap.

By doing so the Scottish Government would be exposed to a potential significant liability, however in risk management terms it is one that is of very low probability. Hence the Scottish Government could adopt a more agile risk posture to specifically support the growth of indigenous nano-spacecraft operators by reducing or even removing the liability cap for Scottish operators.

Note that something more than merely locating the company headquarter in Scotland would be advisable, and perhaps requiring greater than 50% of research and development to be done within Scotland would also be a wise criteria.

If this Canada-UK colloquium can introduce some innovative new thinking it is surely to be welcomed.

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