Guidance

Licence to operate a space object: how to apply

How to get a licence to launch or operate a satellite, or manage other activities in outer space, under the Outer Space Act 1986.

International space law and the basis of space regulation

Space law has its origins in the treaties and principles established by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), a committee set up following the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the world’s first ever satellite, ‘Sputnik’. As early as 1962, the first set of principles on outer space was agreed, adopted by the UN General Assembly as the “Declaration of Legal Principles” for space activities. These principles were elaborated upon in the UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and in subsequent UN treaties, resolutions, and principles. Currently, over one hundred states are party to the Outer Space Treaty.

For regulators, the most salient points of the UN space treaties are:

  • the use of space must be exclusively for peaceful purposes
  • space must be accessible to all countries and used for the benefit of all countries
  • each state is internationally responsible and liable for its space activities, including activities carried out by non-governmental entities of that state
  • each state must authorise and continuously supervise the space activities of its non-governmental entities
  • each state must maintain a register of space objects it launches and furnish details regarding the orbital parameters and basic function of the space object to the UN
  • each state must, in conducting, authorising, or supervising its space activities, avoid harmful contamination of outer space

States have often sought to secure compliance with their international obligations by introducing national legislation and regulations. Typically, national legislation confers licensing or authorisation powers on the state. The state then uses these powers to determine the requirements a licensee has to meet and to set out the obligations of each licensee.

The Outer Space Act 1986

The UK is one of the pioneering nations in space activity. Today it has a leading reputation in a number of key space sectors, both in the scientific and commercial arenas.

The UK is also a signatory to four UN space treaties, and takes seriously its international commitment to the safe, responsible, and sustainable use of space; only with this global commitment can the world continue to exploit and enjoy the unique opportunities that space offers.

The Outer Space Act 1986 (“OSA”) is the legal means by which the UK regulates the use of outer space. The purpose and provisions of the Act stem from the obligations that the UN space treaties place on state parties.

Purpose and remit of the Outer Space Act

The Outer Space Act is the basis for the regulation of activities in outer space carried out by organisations or individuals established in the United Kingdom, or in one of its overseas territories or Crown dependencies. It confers licensing and other powers on the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who acts through the UK Space Agency to exercise these powers.

The OSA seeks to:

  • ensure compliance with the UK’s various obligations under international treaties and principles covering the use of outer space, including liability for damage caused by space objects, the registration of objects launched into outer space and the principles for the remote sensing of the Earth
  • ensure that space activities do not jeopardise public health or the safety of persons or property
  • ensure that space activities licensed by the UK do not undermine national security
  • manage the risk of claims for third-party damage being brought against the UK Government, and to transfer some of that liability from the UK Government and taxpayers to the licensed organisation or individual whose space activities caused the third-party damage

An OSA licence is required for the following activities:

  • launching or procuring the launch of a space object
  • operating a space object
  • any activity in outer space

It is an offence for a person to whom the Act applies to carry out a licensable activity without a valid licence (OSA, s. 12).

The 1986 Act was amended in 2015, to introduce a limit to the operator’s indemnity to the UK Government for third-party claims brought against the UK. The Act has also been extended, through Orders in Council, to apply with modifications to Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Fees regulations have also been made under powers in the Act.

For more information about OSA licensing, such as what to expect from the licensing process and the obligations of licensees, please visit the ‘Applying for a licence’ section.

2015 Amendment to the Outer Space Act

Section 12 of the Deregulation Act 2015 amended the Outer Space Act to make it obligatory for a licence to specify the maximum amount of a licensee’s liability to indemnify the Government in respect of activities authorised by the licence.

The following archived material contains further details on the 2015 amendment.

Impact Assessment: Review of the Outer Space Act (1986)

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Consultation: Reform of the Outer Space Act 1986

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Government response: Outer Space Act consultation

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Applying for a licence

Process and application form

UK nationals and UK companies intending to launch or procure the launch of a space object, operate a space object, or carry on any other activity in outer space should make themselves familiar with the provisions of the Outer Space Act 1986, plus the amendments made to the Act by the Deregulation Act 2015.

Unless acting as an employee or agent of another organisation, you need to apply for a licence at least six months in advance of carrying out the licensable activity. In certain circumstances it may be possible to process an application in a reduced timescale, although no guarantees can be given. Applications should be made using the licence application form below.

There is flexibility in the UK approach to licensing and the UK Space Agency encourages potential applicants to contact them as early as possible to discuss the best way forward and solution for their mission. Please get in touch at regulation@ukspaceagency.gov.uk

Please read the ‘Guidance for Applicants’ document carefully before submitting an application.

OSA application form

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Example of an OSA licence (where the indemnity cap applies)

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Guidance for applicants

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Outer Space Act Database of Standards

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The Traffic Light System of licensing

The Traffic Light System (TLS) for licensing is a pre-application stage that has been developed in response to suggestions from operators. Based on a small subset of information, it gives prospective licence applicants a pre-application Red/Amber/Green rating, which indicates the likelihood of a licence being granted. Depending on the mission, the Traffic Light System may also provide a shorter, tailored application form to help streamline the licensing process.

The purpose of the TLS is threefold:

  • to help less experienced operators understand the need for safety, security, and sustainability, as reflected in the UK’s licensing process

  • to advise operators of the likelihood of application success before they submit a full application, and, where possible, to advise them on what modifications would be required to bring their proposed mission in line with the UK Space Agency’s licensing requirements

  • where possible, to provide a smoother, more tailored application process that is more proportionate to the scale and risks of a particular mission type

Some streamlining of the process is also possible in the case of repeat applications (applications from the same operator for identical or near-identical missions), reducing the administrative burden on the applicant.

The Traffic Light rating is based on the operator’s responses to a short set of questions. These responses provide the UK Space Agency OSA Licensing team with the basic technical details – the what, when, why, how, and where – of the planned mission. The ratings indicate three likely, but non-binding, outcomes of the application.

  • Missions assessed as ‘Green’ are deemed to be sufficiently low-risk: it is likely that the licence application will be successful

  • An ‘Amber’ rating means either that more information is needed for the UK Space Agency to understand the risks, or that modifications to the mission would be required before this mission can be rated as ‘Green’

  • Missions assessed as ‘Red’ are deemed unsafe or too high-risk: The Licensing team would advise the operator not to apply and to reconsider its mission plans

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Prospective applicants are not obliged to use the Traffic Light System and can submit an application for an OSA licence without having first received a Traffic Light rating. However, we recommend that new operators, and all operators hoping to launch new types of missions, make use of the Traffic Light System.

If you have any queries regarding the Traffic Light System, please contact the OSA Licensing team at regulation@ukspaceagency.gov.uk

Traffic Light System: 10 questions

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Obligations of licensees

Once a licence has been granted, licensees are obliged to:

  • permit reasonable access to documents and inspection and testing of equipment and facilities by the UK Space Agency or their advisors as appropriate
  • inform the UK Space Agency of any planned change to the licensed activity (e.g. change of orbit, change of owner) and seek approval prior to the change being made
  • prevent contamination of outer space and adverse changes in the environment of the Earth
  • avoid interference in the space activities of others
  • avoid jeopardising public health or safety of persons or property
  • avoid any breach of the UK’s international obligations
  • preserve the national security of the UK
  • indemnify the UK Government for any claims for third-party damage brought against the Government which arise from each licensed space activity
  • in most cases, to insure themselves against third-party liabilities arising from each licensed activity, with the UK Government named as an additional insured; insurance should be for the launch and in-orbit phases of the mission
    • for each licence application, a risk assessment will be performed to consider the potential risks posed by the mission and a commensurate level of insurance cover will be determined
    • for more information about insurance requirements, please visit the insurance section
  • dispose of the licensed space object appropriately at the end of the licensed activity and inform the UK Space Agency of the disposal and termination of the activity

Space liability and insurance requirements

Background

The 1972 UN Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (“the Liability Convention”), which the UK has ratified, is the foundation for space liability regimes worldwide. Under the Convention, a “Launching State” is internationally liable for damage arising out of its space activities to i) objects owned by nationals from another state, and ii) nationals of another state.

A Launching State is defined in Art. I of the Convention as:

  • a State that launches or procures the launching of a space object
  • a State from whose territory or facility a space object is launched

There can be, and often is, more than one Launching State.

Damage caused on the surface of the Earth or to an aircraft in flight carries absolute liability. (Art. II)

For damage caused elsewhere and to a space object, the Launching State is liable “only if the damage is due to its fault or the fault of persons for whom it is responsible” (Art. III).

The Convention has significant implications for how states regulate space activities, and many states have sought to manage or offset some of their liability for non-governmental space activities. Typically, this is done by minimising the risk of a collision or third-party damage in the first place (through a state’s licensing and compliance procedures); by requiring an indemnity from licensees for claims presented to the state; and by requiring a minimum level of third-party liability insurance cover as a condition of the licence, to better protect both the operator and the Government of that state from such claims.

The UK’s space liability and indemnity regime

Under section 10 of the Outer Space Act 1986 (OSA), operators must indemnify the UK Government for claims brought against the latter other than in circumstances set out in that section. The operator’s indemnity to the UK Government is a vital part of the UK’s overall space risk management approach, helping the UK offset some of the liability that it incurs on behalf of satellite operators. Up until 2015, this indemnity was unlimited: if a claim was brought against UK Government, the Government could seek recovery from the operator, however large the claim.

The OSA was amended by the Deregulation Act 2015. Henceforth, all licences issued must state a limit to the operator’s liability to indemnify UK Government for claims made against the latter. This means that, if a third-party claim is brought against the UK Government, the operator would be liable to indemnify the Government up to a limit, and the UK Government would meet the remaining liability.

The limit on the liability to indemnify the Government, (“the Indemnity limit”) also referred to as the indemnity ‘cap’, is set out in licence conditions and determined by the UK Space Agency on a case-by-case basis. The UK Space Agency has full discretion to vary the indemnity limit for each licence, depending on the risks associated with that mission. It should be noted that each satellite is licensed individually and so in effect the indemnity limit is set on a per-satellite basis.

  • For ‘standard missions’, the indemnity limit will normally be € 60 million for each licence issued. This means that, if a third-party claim is brought against the UK Government, the operator would be liable to indemnify the Government up to € 60 million, and the UK Government would meet the remaining liability.
  • For missions deemed by the UK Space Agency to be higher-risk, the indemnity limit may be set at a higher level. We will engage closely with prospective licensees to inform them of the likely indemnity limit for their licensed activities.

It should be noted that the indemnity limit is applied only to licensed activities: if damage is caused from unlicensed activities (i.e. activities not expressly authorised by the UK Space Agency), then the operator’s liability to indemnify the Government is without limit.

The indemnity limit has important interactions with the amount of third-party liability insurance that we require operators to hold. Please see the ‘third-party liability insurance’ section for further details.

Third-party liability insurance

In order to better protect both operators and the UK Government from third-party claims, the UK Space Agency may also require licensees to hold third-party liability (TPL) insurance for regulated activities, which currently consist of in-orbit operations and the procurement of overseas launches. The UK Government should be named on the insurance policy as an additional insured. The minimum insurance cover required is determined at the discretion of the UK Space Agency; operators are free to hold more than the UK Space Agency requires.

Launch insurance

For launch, in the majority of cases involving single satellite missions employing established launchers, this insurance cover would be limited to € 60 million.

In-orbit insurance

On the 1st October 2018, the UK Space Agency introduced a new approach to its in-orbit third-party liability insurance requirements. The changes were introduced in response to feedback from the space industry and in recognition of a rapidly diversifying space sector. Such a diversification of technology and risk meant that the previous model of requiring € 60 million TPL insurance in all cases was no longer appropriate.

The key changes explained further in the Fact sheet: new requirements for in-orbit Third Party Liability insurance (PDF, 434KB, 6 pages) are:

  • Requiring TPL insurance on a per-occurrence basis, rather than a per-satellite basis. This means that, for operators of more than one satellite, the UK Space Agency may allow all of that operator’s satellites to be covered under a single ‘any one occurrence’ TPL insurance policy. In essence, this would function as a fleet TPL insurance policy.

  • For low-risk smallsat missions launched to an operational altitude below that of the International Space Station, the UK Space Agency may waive the TPL insurance requirement. The operator’s indemnity limit will remain € 60 million per licence (with each satellite licensed individually).

  • for standard missions (see definition in Q&A section), the TPL insurance requirement would remain the same as it presently is – € 60 million.

    • Where an operator has more than one standard mission, the UK Space Agency may allow all of the operator’s standard-mission satellites to be covered under a single € 60 million ‘any one occurrence’ insurance policy.
    • After a certain number of satellites have been launched by that operator, the UK Space Agency may offer the operator the option to add an aggregate (a limit) to their per-occurrence TPL insurance policy. The UK Space Agency would determine the aggregate to be applied in such cases.
    • The operator’s indemnity to the UK Government will continue to apply in respect of each licence. In most cases involving standard missions, the indemnity limit will be set at € 60 million per licence (with each satellite licensed individually).
  • For higher-risk licensable missions (see definition in Q&A), the UK Space Agency may require a higher per-occurrence and/or a higher aggregate, depending on the risks of each mission. These requirements will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and set following an appropriate risk assessment.

    • The UK Space Agency will take into account the capacity of the insurance market when setting its insurance requirements
    • The operator’s indemnity to the UK Government will continue to apply for each licence. In most cases involving higher-risk missions, the indemnity limit would continue to be covered by the TPL insurance requirement, to minimise the risk of an operator carrying an uninsured liability to UK Government.

The above points should be taken as indicative only. The UK Space Agency will, through its risk assessment procedures, determine the amount required for both the per-occurrence level and, where appropriate, the aggregate level.

In setting its TPL insurance requirements, the UK Space Agency will consider, amongst other factors:

  • the heritage and reliability of the technology;
  • the orbital parameters;
  • the contingency plans and redundancy of the planned mission;
  • the manouevrability of the satellite and the capacity for it to be tracked;
  • the estimated value of satellites in nearby orbits;
  • the orbit-raising and de-orbiting plans, including the value of satellites that may be encountered during the procedures;
  • the operational practices followed by the operator;
  • the performance of similar space systems on orbit

The licence applicant will be kept closely informed about the likely TPL insurance requirements for their mission. We may be able to give an early, non-binding indication of the likely TPL insurance requirements at the pre-application Traffic Light stage.

Fact sheet: new requirements for in-orbit Third Party Liability insurance

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Q&A

When did the changes to the UK Space Agency’s setting of insurance requirements come in to force?

The UK Space Agency will be implementing the new approach to insurance requirements from 1st October 2018.

There is no legislative change required, as the Outer Space Act 1986 enables the UK Space Agency to enact these changes as policy initiatives.

What is a ‘standard mission’?

Standard missions represent very low and well-characterised third-party risks. For licensing purposes, we define a standard mission as a mission involving a single satellite employing an established launcher, a proven satellite platform, and recognised operational practices. Ultimately, it is the UK Space Agency that decides whether or not a particular mission is ‘standard’, based on information conveyed in the licence application.

A standard mission will likely carry with it a € 60 million indemnity limit. We will in most cases require that a standard mission is covered by a € 60 million ‘any one occurrence’ third-party liability insurance policy. We may also allow for an operator to place all satellites that count as ‘standard missions’ onto a single ‘any one occurrence’ insurance policy. Please see the TPL insurance section for more information.

What is a ‘higher-risk mission’?

Higher-risk missions are licensable missions that: i) are novel in nature or scale; and/or ii) use techniques, technologies and/or systems which are unproven; and/or iii) present a higher risk of higher-value third-party liability claims; and/or iv) present third-party risks that are not well-characterised

It should be noted that novelty in itself will not automatically render a mission ‘higher-risk’. As with all licensing decisions, the UK Space Agency will take a holistic view when determining whether a proposed mission is ‘standard’ or ‘higher-risk’.

The UK Space Agency may require operators of higher-risk missions to hold more third-party liability insurance than the standard € 60 million requirement. Higher-risk missions may also be subject to an indemnity limit that is higher than the standard € 60 million per licensed satellite.

In each case, the UK Space Agency will keep prospective operators informed of their likely indemnity limit and insurance requirements.

What kind of factors will the UK Space Agency take into account when determining the indemnity limit and the insurance requirements?

In setting its TPL insurance requirements, the UK Space Agency will consider, amongst other factors:

  • the heritage and reliability of the technology;
  • the orbital parameters;
  • the contingency plans and redundancy of the planned mission;
  • the manouevrability of the satellite and the capacity for it to be tracked;
  • the estimated value of satellites in nearby orbits;
  • the orbit-raising and de-orbiting plans, including the value of satellites that may be encountered during the procedures;
  • the operational practices followed by the operator;
  • the performance of similar space systems on orbit

The licence applicant will be kept closely informed about the likely TPL insurance requirements for their mission.

We may be able to give an early, non-binding indication of the likely TPL insurance requirements at the pre-application Traffic Light stage.

Where can I find likely indemnity limits alongside likely third-party liability insurance requirements for various types of missions?

The indemnity limit will continue to be set on a per satellite basis. Please see the table on page 4 of the Fact sheet: new requirements for in-orbit Third Party Liability insurance (PDF, 434KB, 6 pages) containing both indicative TPL insurance requirements and indicative indemnity limits. Please note that the table provides an indication only; the UK Space Agency retains full discretion to set both the indemnity limit and the TPL insurance requirements appropriately.

How does the indemnity limit work for third-party claims brought directly against the operator rather than brought against the UK Government?

The limit to the operator’s liability to indemnify set out in the licence applies only for claims brought against the Government, a point that the Outer Space Act 1986 is clear on. Operators take on full liability for any claims brought against them and must consider their TPL insurance cover accordingly.

Further, the indemnity limit is applied to licensed activities only. If damage is caused to a third party through unlicensed activities (i.e. activities not expressly authorised by the UK Space Agency’s OSA Licensing team), then the operator’s liability to indemnify the UK Government for claims brought against the Government is without limit.

When will I be informed by the UK Space Agency what the insurance requirements are for my mission?

The UK Space Agency may provide an early indication of the likely minimum third-party liability insurance requirements as part of the pre-application Traffic Light assessment. However, this will be a guideline only, and may change in light of the UK Space Agency’s assessment of the full licence application. This will be made clear to each prospective applicant.

Once an application is submitted, the UK Space Agency will commence its detailed assessments of the mission. If the UK Space Agency considers that the indicative third-party liability insurance requirement conveyed at the pre-application stage should change, the operator will be promptly informed.

What documentation does the UK Space Agency require from operators for the purposes of TPL insurance requirements?

The UK Space Agency will need to see evidence that the operator holds insurance that meets the minimum requirements. This means the UK Space Agency will need to review both the insurance policy certificate and the policy wording (to include exclusions and definitions), and any other documentation that may impact on the TPL insurance policy. As per current practice, the UK Space Agency will seek specialist advice on any of these documents from its retained insurance advisors, on a strict commercial-in-confidence basis.

If a collision involving one of my satellites should occur, would the insurance requirements from the UK Space Agency change?

In the case of a collision, the UK Space Agency may suspend licensing activities for that operator while it undertook a detailed assessment of the factors that led to the collision, as well as its consequences. The UK Space Agency would remain in close dialogue with the operator, and with appropriate national or international entities, to try to better understand the event.

If licensing were to resume, the minimum TPL insurance requirements for missions from that operator would partly depend on the outcome of the UK Space Agency’s assessment into the cause of the collision.

Compliance and Monitoring

The UK Space Agency carries out annual checks on all UK licensed spacecraft to meet its obligations under the UN treaties to monitor and supervise the activities of its nationals, most notably Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty:

“States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty. […]”

Our supervisory activities include monitoring the health of the spacecraft. All licensed operators will be required to provide information regarding their satellites by way of a ‘Health Check’, at least on an annual basis. We require only subsystem level reporting, but welcome exception reporting at lower levels.

The UK Space Agency has introduced measures to help streamline its compliance and monitoring procedures. We utilise a Red-Amber-Green health check form. This is emailed to the operator annually.
In addition to this, we request a copy of the third-party liability insurance policy upon its renewal each year. This is so that we can assess the policy and ensure that it continues to meet our normal requirements.

Form: OSA Health Check

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UK Registers of Space Objects

UK registry of outer space objects

Supplementary registry of space objects

Contact us

The UK Space Agency OSA Licensing team welcomes early engagement with prospective operators, and strongly encourages individuals or organisations thinking about applying for an OSA licence to get in touch as early on in the mission planning as possible.

We also welcome any queries or comments about our licensing and regulatory regime.

Please get in touch at regulation@ukspaceagency.gov.uk

Published 16 April 2014
Last updated 30 September 2018 + show all updates
  1. We have updated this page to reflect new guidance for applicants.
  2. Example of an Outer Space Act License (where a liability cap applies) updated into a new document.
  3. June guidance updated to July guidance.
  4. Input no longer required
  5. Application form updated.
  6. First published.