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Time is running out’ for UK Government to translate space launch ambitions into reality

14 July 2023

In a report published today the Commons’ Science, Innovation, and Technology Committee says “there is now not a moment to lose” if the UK is to realise the full potential of the “extraordinary” space launch sector, which is booming worldwide.

The UK is on the cusp of establishing Europe’s first small satellite orbital launch capability. As well as offering services to one of the world’s fastest growing industries, a UK satellite launch sector can help strengthen Britain’s position in the design and manufacture of small satellites, and in provision of data and analytical services.  However, Britain’s first attempt at satellite launch—the Virgin Orbit horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay on 9 January 2023—did not succeed. The LauncherOne rocket did not reach the required orbit and its payload of small satellites was lost.

Virgin Orbit and some of its satellite customers were highly critical of the UK regulatory process which preceded the launch attempt. This process was led by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who were accused by Virgin Orbit of operating a process that was slow, excessively bureaucratic, and risk averse.

The Committee concludes there was no evidence that the regulatory system contributed to the failure of the Virgin Orbit launch and accepts that the CAA has made progress in its application of the regulations.

But there is insufficient coordination between the large number of regulatory bodies involved in licensing launches, and this continues to place unnecessary burdens of complexity and administration on companies—many of them small—in the launch sector. The Committee calls on Government to convene all relevant bodies without delay to take steps now to improve the licensing system of UK satellite launch, and to examine whether regulations in the Space Industry Act 2018— passed by Parliament in anticipation of the launch—need amendment in the light of experience in practice.

The Government is implementing some of the recommendations of SITC’s November 2022 report “UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure”. But the Government’s response on the need for more effective co-ordination across government of space and satellite policy, implementation and leadership was not satisfactory. The National Space Council was abolished and then re-announced as an Inter-Ministerial Group but is yet to meet for the first time, and its responsibilities are unclear. The establishment of the Space Sector Industry Forum provides an opportunity for the Government to take advice from the sector and a leader should be appointed without delay. 

The vital UK Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) strategy, which has been in draft form since as long ago as June 2021, should be published without delay. The Committee was told by the Minister with responsibility for Space on 17 May 2023 that it was expected in weeks.

Chair's comment

Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Chair of the Science, Innovation & Technology Committee, said:

“The UK has huge opportunities in the burgeoning space and satellite industry. But the sector is global and fast-paced, and to maintain our position the UK must act urgently to applies the lessons of the Cornwall disappointment to the regulatory system for satellite launch.”

Further information

Image: MOD