Can we launch a satellite?

We’ve written a number of blogs about satellites being launched, and it got me wondering if anybody can launch one – in case Pixalytics ever wants to go into space. I know we’re a micro business, but we think big! Unsurprisingly, it turns out that you can’t just launch a satellite.

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

In order for any UK company, or individual, to launch any object into space, operate a space object or engage in any activity in outer space, you need to have a licence. The licensing arrangements are detailed in the Outer Space Act 1986, which brought into UK law the provisions of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.

The UK Space Agency manages the licencing procedure on behalf of the UK Government, and in order to start the process you need to fill in an application form. This requires:

  • Details of the applicant applying for the licence
  • The nature of the space activity, including technical details about the mission, the satellite, the launch arrangements, ground receiving stations and emergency arrangements.
  • Orbital details including nodal period, inclination, apogee and perigee.
  • Radio frequencies to be used to ensure they won’t cause interference issues.
  • Financial details including mission costs and the applicant’s financial standing to ensure that they can meet their licence obligations.
  • Insurance arrangements – The standard requirement is to have insurance of at least €60 million against third party liabilities arising during both launch and operational phases of the mission. However, if there are any proven third party costs resulting from the launch or operation, the licensees are liable for unlimited damages!
  • End of life disposal arrangements.

In addition, you need to send a non-refundable licence fee of £6,500; although interestingly, educational institutions carrying out activities for the purpose of scientific research or teaching don’t have to pay this fee. This starts to explain why a number of Universities have launched satellites, which we highlighted in an earlier blog.

Once submitted a variety of Government organisations will assess the application including the UK Space Agency, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, OFCOM and any third party technical experts. A licence will only be issued if it’s clear that the activities will not jeopardise public health or the safety of persons or property, will be consistent with the UK’s international obligations and will not impact on our national security.

Once a licence has been granted, the licensee has a number of ongoing obligations; including these two intriguing ones:

  • Preventing the contamination of outer space or adverse changes in the environment of the earth; and
  • Avoid any interference with the activities of others in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space.

The guidance suggests that you should submit your application at least six months before launch, although to me given the time, and cost, of building and launching a satellite, six months seems a little late in the day.

Whilst satellite technology may be getting smaller and cheaper with the development of cubesats and nanosats, the requirements around launching them are the same as any other satellite. The UK Government acknowledged this in response to the 2012 consultation on the Outer Space Act in 2012, by noting that the regulations for smaller satellites needed reviewing.

Pixalytics is a few years away from getting into space, our first job is work out what paradigm shifting Earth observation data we’d collect, but it’s useful to have an understanding of the steps we’d have to take. Anyone else thinking of taking one small step?