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UK’s first space launch could take place in early 2020s, government says

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The government has announced a regulatory framework for overseeing spaceflights, which it says could pave the way for the UK’s first space launch within the first half of this decade.

The government hopes to grow the UK’s share of the global space market to 10 per cent by 2030. It aims to build multiple spaceports in the UK, with a view to seeing commercial sub-orbital spaceflight and space tourism from UK spaceports.

Potential spaceport locations include Newquay in Cornwall; Snowdonia in North Wales; and the Western Isles, Shetland, Sutherland, Glasgow Prestwick and Campbeltown, all in Scotland.

At present, licensed UK entities can launch and operate satellites but rely on obtaining a launch slot from a spaceport in another country. The government has now published a regulatory framework for spaceflight, which it says will drive grows in the sector. The regulations allow for a range of commercial spaceflight technologies, including traditional vertically-launched vehicles, air-launched vehicles, and sub-orbital spaceplanes and balloons.

“Our aim now is to license launches from UK spaceports,” wrote Baroness Vere of Norbiton, a junior minister in the Department for Transport. “I expect to see the first UK-based launches during the early-2020s.”

Baroness Vere said that the government has worked to lay out regulations that are “flexible enough to accommodate emerging technological advancements, market opportunities, and changes of the international legal landscape, while keeping safety at the forefront.”

The Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “We want the UK to be the first place in Europe to launch small satellites and in order to do that, we need business-friendly regulations in place. Satellite launches will create new jobs right across the UK and attract significant investment into our rapidly-growing space sector. This consultation brings these exciting opportunities a big step closer.”

Notably, the responsibility for overseeing spaceflights will be transferred from the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which already regulates in-orbit activities under previous legislation. This will avoid a potential conflict of interest for the UKSA if it were put in the position of issuing public grants and monitoring the recipients of these grants.

“The UK has a chance to be at the forefront of spaceflight development globally. We have a long and proud history of satellite technology and space research, and the CAA wants to support the industry to build on these foundations,” said CAA chief executive Richard Moriarty. “Our vision is for UK spaceflight to thrive as a competitive and, above all, safe industry.”

The Transport Secretary Grant Shapps commented: “Getting the rules in place for space launches from UK territory may seem like one small step, but it paves the way for a giant leap in the development of our space sector. This is technology’s high frontier and we will soon be able to reach it with specialist small payload launches from British soil.”

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