News from the Farnborough International Airshow | Britain Plots Course for Domestic Small-satellite Launcher

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FARNBOROUGH, England — The British government on July 15 unveiled a broad strategy document designed to create the necessary regulatory regime to permit suborbital spaceplane flights by 2018, with a longer-term goal of establishing a small-satellite launch capability on British territory.

The review accepts market assessments showing that space tourism, meaning taking passengers to the edge of the atmosphere for several minutes of low-gravity conditions, could become a sizable business in the next decade. The report concludes that Britain, as part of its broader goal of growing its commercial space industry, should not stand on the sidelines as the market develops.

A secondary argument is that Britain is home to several established or newly formed small-satellite manufacturers. For these companies, the current commercial launch market is unsatisfactory, with flights occurring too infrequently, and at overly high prices.

The biggest of these companies is Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Guildford, England. SSTL Chairman Sir Martin Sweeting said in a statement that his company expects to be building two small satellites per year and would welcome a British small-satellite launcher.

“There is a queue of companies waiting for the launch of their small satellites,” U.K. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Robert Goodwill said here July 15 during the Farnborough Air Show. “Sometimes they have to pay a premium and the launch costs more than the satellite itself.”

Saying that “we are at the dawn of a second space revolution,” Goodwill announced that the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had selected eight existing airports as potential suborbital spaceports, six of them in Scotland.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the British government on July 16 signed a memorandum of understanding that will permit them to consult more closely on how U.S. regulation of space tourism has evolved, and what parts of U.S. practice might be adopted by Britain.

The CAA performed an in-depth assessment of suborbital space tourism and concluded that while the promise is real, there are many obstacles to starting a UK-based industry. The 319-page technical assessment released July 16 outlines them in detail. Among the principal challenges: 

U.S. ITAR restrictions. While recently modified to facility space commerce, the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations “are of enormous significance to the goal of allowing spaceplane operations to take place in the UK by 2018,” the CAA report said.

The most likely near-term spaceplane scenario is for Britain to allow flights of U.S.-developed vehicles at British spaceports. But ITAR rules make it difficult for these planes to operate outside the United States, and sharply limit the amount of safety-related technical data that can be shared with foreign regulators, including the CAA.

Officials from the U.S. State and Commerce departments acknowledged the issue here July 16 and said they could only suggest that Britain start a bilateral dialogue with a view to winning ITAR exceptions for Britain. This has been done in the past for other technologies.

Flight safety regulations. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), in an effort to spur development of suborbital space tourism, has agreed that these vehicles need not be classed as aircraft.

In its technical assessment, the CAA said both its lawyers and legal opinion from the U.K. Department of Transport do not share this view, all the more so because coming European Union regulations and other international regulatory developments appear to be heading in a direction opposite to the U.S. view.

“The UK should not apply the FAA/AST system as a whole for the regulation of commercial spaceplane operations,” the CAA review concluded.

Liability exposure. Like the United States, the CAA proposes that spaceplane passengers sign informed-consent provisions acknowledging that they are flying in experimental craft that do not meet the safety standards of general-aviation flights.

But as is the case in many parts of the United States — where state liability law, not federal statutes, is the controlling liability regime — “informed consent does not absolve the operator of liability claims brought by spaceplane flight crew or participants or their families in the event of death or serious injury.”

FAA/AST Associate Administrator George C. Nield, in a panel discussion here July 16, said some U.S. states have liability regimes that could undermine the growth of the space tourism industry. He suggested that a U.S. federal statute may be one way to get around the problem, which some insurance underwriters have said could stunt the growth of the industry.

Without saying so directly, the CAA appears to agree with its U.S. counterpart that saddling a startup industry with similar environmental, safety and air-worthiness requirements imposed on the general-aviation industry should be avoided. The risks are worth it, the report said.

“During its technical visit to the U.S., the UK Government team was informed by NASA that it considered a target level of safety of one in 1,000 to be achievable for orbital operations, and one in 10,000 for sub-orbital operations in the future,” the CAA said. 

“These figures are understood to be broadly in line with [European Space Agency] targets as well as with the draft safety standards being developed by the [International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety]. However, it is worth highlighting that historically, orbital operations have experienced approximately one catastrophic failure every 100 launches.”

 

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