The United Kingdom And Its Space Program

The United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) is the agency of the Government of the United Kingdom dedicated to the development of the civil space program. The agency was established on April 1, 2010 as a replacement of the British National Space Centre and concentrates all budgets and responsibilities intended for the UK space program.

Space activities carried out by the British government are framed by two legal frameworks. Firstly by the international treaties in which the United Kingdom took part, and secondly, by the Outer Space Act of 1986 which is a direct application of international principles in British law.

The 1986 Act is the way for the United Kingdom to regulate the use of outer space and the activities carried out in it by organisations or individuals from its territory. Therefore this act is inspired by the aims and principles set in the United Nations space treaties, like the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

The Outer Space Act is of utmost importance to the United Kingdom as it allows the country to comply its activities with the principles established by international law. Moreover it establishes a safety net around public health and frames the issue of the UK government liability for damage.

Besides it also establishes a protocol to be followed. If you want to launch or operate a space objet or carry out any activity in outer space, you will need to apply for a OSA licence. The protocol instituted the Traffic Light System (TLS): by giving a certain color – red, amber or green – it will give the person or organization applying for the licence a way to know the probability of success of their application.

Once the licence is granted, the licensee must fulfil a number of obligations such as avoiding contaminating space, avoiding interfering with space activities carried out by others, avoiding any breach of the UK’s international obligations but also preserving the national security of the United Kingdom as well as insuring themselves against third-party liabilities.

The Outer Space Act of 1986 was amended by the Deregulation Act of 2015 which introduced a limit to the operator’s indemnity to the UK government for third-party claims brought against the United Kingdom. As explained by the official website of the government of the United Kingdom, “the licence delivered must specify the maximum amount of a licensee’s liability to indemnify the Government in respect of activities authorized by the licence“.

The Space Program

The UK space exploration program dates back to the 1950s with the development of the Skylark suborbital sounding rockets.

Then the following decades saw several types of programs succeed one another. Between the 1960s and 1970s, the UK’s first interest was to place satellites into orbit with the Ariel program. It launched six satellites, whose first – Ariel 1 launched on April 26, 1962 – made Britain the third country in the world to have a satellite orbiting the Earth.

The interest of satellites in military intelligence having been quickly understood, the Skynet military program was developed in the 1960s. As of today and after six generations of satellites, the Skynet program still continues with the replacement in 2018 of a fifth generation satellite by a sixth generation satellite. The construction of a Skynet 6A satellite whose launch will be planned for 2025 is on its way.

Let’s not forget the development of British rockets which was quite substantial between 1950 and 1985, before it came to an end due to insufficient funds and global competition.

In recent decades, British interest has turned more towards financial participation in European programs and even was one of the largest financial contributor to the budget of the Aurora program whose purpose was to design a plan establishing a long-term European presence in the exploration of the Solar system.

However, after several decades of active participation in the development of space activities, the United Kingdom seemed to have lost its interest and motivation. The country did not participate in the financing of the International Space Station (ISS) as it was not considered a good investment. As a consequence of this non-participation, the first British astronaut to fly aboard the international space station as a European astronaut was Tim Peake in 2015. Before that, British astronauts took part in missions as astronauts from NASA.

Nevertheless the British government seems to have a new enthusiasm to develop its program of space activities. As such, in recent years, the UKSA funded various space missions and programmes such as the Earth Observation mission, the LaunchUK and spaceports program, the Space Exploration program and the ESA Technology Harmonisation program.

But Brexit raises some doubts. The consequences of Brexit on British participation in European space programs are still unknown. However it is very likely that the country will continue to participate, in particular because it has already invested several funds in it and the competition in the market is fierce.

But we can already note that, on certain programs affecting sensitive areas of national security, the United Kingdom will move away from Europe, as evidenced by its announcement in 2018 to withdraw its participation in the European satellite system Galileo and that it will use an independent system.