Space Law: A national space law in Portugal

Portugal, officially the Portuguese Republic, is a country located mostly on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. It is the westernmost sovereign state of mainland Europe. It is bordered to the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean and to the north and east by Spain. Its territory also includes the Atlantic archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira, both autonomous regions with their own regional governments. Portugal is a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) since November 14, 2000. The FCT Space Programme supports the activities of the Portuguese Delegation, promoting the participation of Portuguese companies and R&D institutions in ESA space programmes, including those in the framework of the ESA-European Union agreement.

As a consequence of the Treaty of Lisbon which came into force in 2010, the European Union, through the European Commission, reinforced its political role in the implementation of Space Programmes together with ESA. Although they are different international organizations (with different member states, though Portugal is a member state of both), this partnership enables Europe to take the challenge of positioning itself side by side with great global space powers. This partnership is also important to further exploit the benefits of space applications and technologies for all European citizens. Among optional programmes, Portugal subscribes almost all programmatic domains with the exception of those related directly to building and exploiting the International Space Station (ISS).

The FCT Space Programme

Portugal joining ESA was a determinant factor for a dynamic and competitive, albeit small, industrial and technological sector to flourish. The Portuguese Space sector is made of by companies with strong technological competencies and by R&D institutions capable of developing innovative technologies with Space applicability. Portuguese Space sector companies benefit from the high degree of internationalization derived from the pan-european effort of ESA and EU space programmes.

The main mission of the FCT Space Programme is to implement the national space strategy in order to stimulate the development of the Portuguese space sector and to fully exploit the benefits of the participation in European space programmes, namely in ESA and European Commission space programmes. In order to fulfil its mission, the FCT Space Programme is set to stimulate the participation of Portuguese academia and industry in European and international space programmes, while providing recommendations relevant to the implementation of national scientific and technological initiatives and programmes. To contribute to the maintenance of a level of national contribution to ESA and to other international organizations corresponding to the ambitions and capabilities of the scientific and industrial communities, in line with public strategies and policies established for the space domain. To explore the synergies established with other international organizations of which Portugal is a member, and, simultaneously, promote bidirectional technology transfer to other economic activity sectors. To promote the visibility and competitiveness of the Portuguese space sector alongside the main European and international partners and to foster the use of space-enabled technologies and space-based services on a wide range of applications.


PoSAT-1, the first Portuguese satellite, was launched into orbit on September 26, 1993, on the 59th flight of the Ariane 4 rocket (an expendable launch system, designed by the Centre national d’études spatiales, CNES, while being manufactured by ArianeGroup and marketed by Arianespace). The launch took place in the Kourou Space Centre, French Guiana. About twenty minutes and thirty-five seconds after launch, at an altitude of eight-hundred and seven kilometres, PoSAT-1 separated itself from the rocket.

The PoSAT-1 weighs about fifty kilograms and belongs to the class of microsatellites, which are between ten and one hundred kilograms. The entire project was developed by a consortium of universities and companies in Portugal and was built at the University of Surrey in England. The total cost was around five million euros, about three million euros paid by the Portuguese Government and two million euros paid by the Portuguese companies involved. The responsible for the project was Fernando Carvalho Rodrigues, known as the father of the first Portuguese satellite.

A national space law in Portugal

Portugal has adopted on January 22, 2019, a national space law. This decree-law (Diário da República n. 15/2019, Série I de 2019-01-22) establishes rules about the access and exercise of space activities, on national territory or abroad, by Portuguese or foreign operators (provided that they are established on national territory). It states that to begin any space activity, for instance the management of launching centres (premises aimed for the launch of space objects), it is mandatory to obtain a license and register the space objects. A unitary license (applied to each space operation) or a global license (applied to all space operations of the same type) may be requested. It states that the license is granted by the Space Authority (AE), within ninety days upon the receipt of the request and after the verification of certain requirements. It is valid for as long as the operation(s) in question may last and may be transferred to another operator, when authorized by the AE (within sixty days). It expires when the space activity ends or if the holder waives the license granted. It also mentions the fact that the AE shall revoke it if its holder does not comply with his/her duties in the exercise of the activity.

The Portuguese national law states that space activities are supervised by the AE. The space objects (objects launched or intended to be launched to space, such as the satellites) must be registered before the AE. It is interesting to see that Portugal has tried defining the “space object”, stating that a space object is “an object launched or intended to be launched to space”. According to the Portuguese’s new space law, the space activities may be subject to a previous qualification of the operators, systems, processes, characteristics and specifications. The previous qualification may be requested before the AE. The previous qualification expires in the cases of termination of the operator’s activity, resignation of the previous qualification certificate and non-compliance with the provisions established by the AE.

The law also focuses on liability, stating that “The operators are responsible for the damages caused during the exercise of the space activity. Therefore, they are bound to hold an indemnity insurance which policy must be submitted upon the submission of the license’s request. The non-compliance with his/her obligations (the submission of false information, for instance) by the space operator incurs an offense and is punishable with fines”.

This decree-law aims to ease the access to the exercise of space activities in the country, through a faster process of licenses’ assignment. It promotes the emergence and development of companies in this activity sector. This decree-law entered into force on the day following its publication.

CHAPTER I, General provisions, Article 1, Object, of the Decreto-Lei n. 16/2019 of January 22, 2019, states that “This decree-law establishes the regime of access and exercise of space activities with a view to: a) regulate the exercise of space activities subject to responsibility, authorization and supervision of the Portuguese Republic, in accordance with the international obligations to which it is subject; b) facilitate and promote the access and exercise of space activities to any operators established in Portugal and from the Portuguese territory; (c) ensure that space activities comply with the principles of the use of outer space, including their peaceful use; d) to protect the political and strategic interests of the Portuguese Republic, ensuring that private space activities do not contend with them”.

CHAPTER I, General provisions, Article 3, Definitions, states that “For the purposes of this Decree-law, the following definitions shall apply: a) launching centre means any installation, fixed or mobile, with the purpose of launching or returning space objects, including all equipment that are necessary for the accomplishment of launches or returns; b) space object is i) an object that has been launched or is intended to be launched in space, in particular in orbit or beyond; ii) any vehicle which is intended to launch an object provided for in the previous sub-paragraph; iii) any component part of space objects referred to in the previous sub-paragraphs”.

Let’s hope that this new national space law will stimulate Europe’s space activity!