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UK Space Industry Bill: A Missed Opportunity to Promote British Space Mining?

The UK Space Industry Bill has now passed the House of Lords and is on its way to the House of Commons, the date for its second reading has yet to be announced but I would imagine it won’t be until the new year but you can keep track of its progress here. The Space Industry Bill is the resurrected Spaceflight Bill from the previous parliament which was cut short by the unexpected general election which was held in June of this year. The Space Industry Bill was largely unchanged from the Spaceflight Bill when introduced into the Lords and deals with launch operations from UK territory and the establishment and operation of spaceports from which those launch operations will be conducted. I feel this was a missed opportunity to expand the scope of the bill, and thus be more deserving of the name Space Industry Bill, as I will discuss in a short presentation at the UK Strategies for the ISRU Grand Challenge workshop at the Royal Astronomical Society today. The focus of my talk, and this post, is space mining, but there are a number of other areas that the UK government could have focused on beyond spaceports and their operations.

First a few words on the existing bill itself, then I will turn my attention to space mining and its potential in the UK. I have already discussed the Space Industry bill a few times before so won’t repeat too much of it here. However, while the idea of a UK spaceport and of launches being conducted from the UK is an exciting one, it does seem more than a tad over-hyped. The reality is the UK is not in a good location for launching many payloads, there’s a reason why existing space launch facilities are located as close to the equator as possible. French Guyana is actually one of the best places in the world for a spaceport, the southern Somali coast would also be a pretty excellent location if peace and stability can eventually be brought to that troubled country. Prestwick, on the other hand, is double the distance from the equator than Kennedy and Woomera, Australia (the site of the UK’s first, and so far, only launch of a UK satellite on a UK built rocket). Which is probably the primary reason, besides Skylon, why there’s so much focus on spaceplanes rather than vertical launches. However, none of this may not matter too much if the main draw is space tourism, although there’s reason to be sceptical of the potential of that industry. Besides, even if it is capable of living up to the hype one needs to bear in mind that Spaceport America has cost over $200 million and is still not actually operating as a spaceport (by contrast the UK government has ‘found’ £50 million extra to support the spaceport initiative…) additionally Virgin Galactic, who it would seem are the main targets for the UK spaceport initiative, are being understandably noncommittal about non-US operations (see this interview on TMRO), as they need to get up and running in the USA first, plus there are potential issues with ITAR especially given the ‘informed consent’ requirements of the UK Space Industry Bill (which I have discussed in the previous posts linked to above.)


Skylon (a model, just in case that wasn’t clear…)

As I have discussed before the Outer Space Treaty is the foundation upon which the space law regime is built. While the Outer Space Treaty does prohibit national appropriation of space, the Moon and any other celestial body by any means, it also provides for a broad freedom of use by all states. Therefore, there is scope within the existing space law regime for space mining to be permitted. Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty requires that activities conducted by non-governmental actors, be they individuals or corporations, are ‘authorised and supervised’ by governments. Most governments of states involved in space activities have therefore introduced national legislation to provide a process for this authorisation and supervision. In the UK this currently takes the form of the Outer Space Act 1986 but assuming it becomes law will also include the UK Space Industry Bill. Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty is also why the United States and Luxembourg have introduced their new laws on space mining, but as I have discussed this further elsewhere[1] I won’t dwell too long on the details here.

The UK is in an excellent position to benefit from space mining. The commercial space industry is doing well, globally, and asteroid mining, despite still being very early in its development, is not only looking viable but promising.[2] The Financial Times recently had an excellent feature on the topic of space mining[3], which included, among other things, a good overview of the companies involved in the embryonic space mining industry.[4] Furthermore, Brexit notwithstanding, the UK space industry is in good health and continuing to grow and as evidenced by the UK Space Industry Bill and the government’s stated target of growing the UK Space Industry to be worth £40 billion by 2030 (currently ~£13 billion)[5], as well as the most recent announcement of £200,000 for four new space focused business incubators.[6]

More to the point the UK is well supplied with the experience, knowhow, and expertise that the space mining industry will need. The UK has experience of resource extraction in harsh environments via our mining, oil and gas industries, and we decades of experience in aerospace engineering from cubesats to Concorde and now the revolutionary SABRE engines. Furthermore, our universities produce not only world class planetary science research but the researchers and scientists themselves who the space mining industry will desperately need in order to tackle their first major hurdle which will be simply figuring out which asteroids are worth their time (and money) trying to mine. Furthermore our financial and legal sectors also have experience dealing with complex, risky, capital intensive engineering challenges with complex legal issues (like dealing with multiple jurisdictions, some of which are in ‘less than ideal’ polities). Finally, the UK is an excellent place to do business, it’s relatively easy to establish a new corporation in the UK and our tax and regulatory burdens are comparatively light.

SABRE 2 (big).jpg

Synthetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE)

Therefore, I think the UK government should do more to promote the UK as a place the space mining industry can do business. There’s no need for a UK space mining company nor to lure (or invest in) an existing space mining company to the UK, let Luxembourg and the United States shoulder the liability should anything go wrong (and under the space law regime states are liable for the actions of their nationals, which is part of the reason the licencing and insurance requirements are what they are), though, of course, the UK government shouldn’t prevent or unnecessarily obstruct the development of a UK based space mining company. However, the UK should focus on the 21st century equivalent of selling California gold miners shovels and pans. That said, a good first step for the UK would be introducing a ‘space mining’ law of its own. This wouldn’t necessarily have to be all that complicated or complex, after all, most of the provisions of the existing Space Industry Bill essentially boil down to “will be elaborated upon by secondary legislation”, and Title IV of the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act is essentially a framework upon which to build a space mining regulatory regime. Besides the existing Outer Space Act 1986 isn’t an overly complex piece of legislation and yet it has facilitated the development of a globally competitive UK space industry. A UK space mining law would signal to the world and the space mining community that the UK Government takes space mining seriously and is ‘throwing its hat into the ring.’ Additionally it is worth noting that Luxembourg have found that legislating for space mining has helped develop their reputation as a good place for a space (or tech) business even if your focus isn’t space mining.[7] It would be a good way to signal to the space mining sector, the space industry in general and the wider business world that the UK is open to new ideas and new ventures, something we will need in the future, especially if we are ‘to make a success of Brexit.’[8]

I’m glad the UK government is not only taking an interest in the UK space industry but actively supporting its development and growth, and that they are following through with actual financial and legislative support (even if £50 million is perhaps ‘insufficient’ support for multiple potential spaceport projects, and £200,000 isn’t exactly a windfall for four business incubators) however they do seem to have become fixated on the spaceport/launch aspect which is, by virtue of geography, never going to be the UK’s strength. While I do have a personal interest in space mining (it is the subject of my PhD) the main purpose of this post, and this argument in general, is that the UK government needs to broaden its outlook. The future of the UK space industry is more than just spaceports and spaceflight, we should also be involved in the new and developing fields of space mining and on orbit servicing as well as maintaining and growing our existing space industry, especially if we’re going to hit the Innovation and Growth Strategy target of 10% of the global space market by 2030.


[8]My personal views on the ability to ‘make a success of Brexit’ notwithstanding…

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