UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure: reviewing the licencing regime for launch – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

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The UK is on the cusp of establishing Europe’s first small satellite orbital launch capability. As well as offering services to one of the world’s fastest growing industries, a UK satellite launch sector can help strengthen Britain’s position in the design and manufacture of small satellites, and in provision of data and analytical services, by having launch facilities close to the location of space and satellite companies.

However, Britain’s first attempt at satellite launch—the Virgin Orbit horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay on 9 January 2023 did not succeed. The LauncherOne rocket did not reach the required orbit and its payload of small satellites was lost.

Virgin Orbit and some of its satellite customers were highly critical of the UK regulatory process which preceded the launch attempt. This process was led by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who were accused by Virgin Orbit of operating a process that was slow, excessively bureaucratic, and risk averse. The CAA robustly defended the conduct of the licencing process, pointing out that the UK’s first launch involved necessary complexity—overflying residential populations and different countries’ airspace, for example. The CAA also observed that it had an overriding duty to maintain public safety and that the launch, whilst not successful, failed for reasons unrelated to the licencing process and failed safely, rather than dangerously.

Following consideration of written and oral evidence we conclude that there was no evidence that the regulatory system contributed to the failure of the Virgin Orbit launch. If the first experience of licencing was slow, witnesses said that the CAA since had made progress in its application of the regulations contained in the Space Industry Act 2018 and, in particular, in its communication with applicants.

However, witnesses told us that insufficient coordination between the large number of regulatory bodies involved in licensing launches continues to place more burdens of complexity and administration than is needed on companies—many of them small—in the launch sector. We recommend that the Government should convene all relevant bodies without delay to take steps now to improve the licensing system of UK satellite launch. These include:

  • improving the regulatory interfaces between the multiple regulatory bodies—including but not limited to, the CAA, the Health & Safety Executive and the Environment Agency—so that more information relating to applicants can be shared;
  • conducting regulatory processes in parallel rather than sequentially wherever possible; and
  • establishing framework agreements with neighbouring states over the use of airspace.

Following the first launch attempt and the experience of dealing with other applicants, it is opportune to examine whether the regulations contained in the Space Industry Act 2018—which was passed by Parliament in anticipation of launch—need amendment in the light of experience in practice.

Given the fast-moving and internationally competitive character of the space and satellite industry, these matters must be carried out urgently, and conclude by the end of this year, to avoid the UK losing its head start in launch.

During our Inquiry the Government responded to our Report of 4 November 2022 on “UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure”. We are pleased that some recommendations have been, or are being, implemented—such as adopting a variable liability approach to licensing. However, we are not satisfied with the Government’s response on the need for more effective co-ordination across government of space and satellite policy, implementation, and leadership. The National Space Council, an inter-ministerial group that was promised in the Government’s response to our report on 30 March 2023 is yet to meet for the first time, and its responsibilities are unclear. The establishment of the Space Sector Industry Forum provides an opportunity for the Government to take advice from the sector and we recommend that a leader should be appointed without delay to ensure its success.

We also note with dismay and alarm that the vital UK Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) strategy—which we identified as vital in our Report of 4 November 2022—has not been published. This is despite our Committee being told by the Minister with responsibility for Space on 17 May 2023 that it was expected in weeks. The strategy is shrouded in mystery since we were told as long ago as June 2021 that it was ready in draft form. It is symptomatic of a disjointed approach to concrete policy and leadership for the UK’s space and satellite sector which now risks hampering its potential. We call on the Government to publish the strategy without further delay.

Time is running out in this Parliament for the Government to translate high-level ambitions into practical plans. There is now not a moment to lose if the UK is to realise the full potential of this extraordinary sector, which is booming worldwide, and in which we have a world class capability and reputation.