UK’s first space launch

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne flight from Newquay’s Spaceport Cornwall facility, is possible only because new regulations in force since 2021, have been crafted following years of consultation.

It’s a model for how to carefully align enabling laws with the needs of a rapidly evolving industry to ensure regulation liberates commercial space activity in the UK

To conduct even a horizontal launch inevitably requires compliance with as raft of new laws, largely a series of operational licences governing each component of the mission. The flight needs a Launch operator licence, an Orbital operator licence, licence for range control services, and a Spaceport licence – and each participant has to meet stringent compliance obligations to ensure safety and environmental considerations are addressed

The Space Industry Act 2018 and 2021 Regulations regulate all spaceflight activities carried out in the UK, and the Civil Aviation Authority, through its new Safety and Airspace Regulation Group, is the regulator

There’s been extensive and coordinated work and dialogue between Virgin Orbit, the satellite operators and Space Port Newquay to ensure this inaugural and historic launch can be delivered in compliance with the new laws

I think what should be applauded is the speed at which the regulatory landscape has been implemented in support of the commercial investment being made. Law is often seen as a barrier to entrepreneurship but with inherently high-risk endeavours of the kind shortly to launch, the law obviously must ensure safety but also serve to facilitate. This is what the new laws achieve. The new licencing regime reveals a carefully considered procedure which starts with a voluntary pre-application engagement, where prospective applicants for licences are encouraged to engage with the CAA before submitting an application for a licence under the Act, followed by the application itself, comprehensive monitoring of the mission profile and finally enforcement
The significance of this first launch can’t be overstated as it paves the way for many more. It will make possible lower cost access to space and the orbital parameters available to a UK launch make our meaningful participation in space activity reality for the first time

It’s important to recognise this launch can also draw attention to downstream players in the emerging commercial space sector. As access to space is more easily secured, potential for new technologies and businesses engaged in subsystem development is enhanced. This is going to be vital to break down the perceived barriers among current non space orientated businesses, to space technology, and in turn, enlarge the emerging new space industry

It’s clear a great deal of work has gone into making this flight possible, but it’s example of active cooperation between regulators and operators which signals a new era for the UK and it’s dynamic example of how law can promote innovation and not simply inhibit