“Understanding the licensing requirements in the applicable jurisdiction is incredibly important to successful and responsible space operations” (Secure World Foundation, 2015)

Your day-to-day activities in the space sector are constantly affected by space specific treaties, laws, and regulations. Imagine you want to create a business by sending tourists to space, using space resources or developing a service using satellite data. The rules applying for each of these space activities are different.

This article will first introduce you to the most important principles of space law and their effect on your startup operation. The key takeaways will help you identify the appropriate information you will need to further develop  your business idea.

Did you know International Law is applicable to space?

Any activity you carry out in space is subject to international law according to Article III of the Outer Space Treaty (OST). The most important treaty governing activities in space is the OST, which defines the rules and principles that regulate space activities. All later space treaties, agreements, and mechanisms are follow-ups to the OST and must comply with the principles defined within it.

Space law refers exclusively to nations and governments because it was established at a time by which space activities were carried out exclusively by states. This language is one of the major reasons for the current controversies in space law on the liability of multinational companies and ownership rights for resources from outer space. However, one may argue that the drafters of the OST already foresaw the imminent arrival of commercial space activities. At the time, the U.S.S.R wanted to restrict the space activities to “governmental activities” in the Article VI, while the United States wanted to let commercial actors involved. The compromise between the US and the Soviets was to allow private space activities and the wording “non-governmental activities” was included in the Article VI.

The OST provides nations with both freedom and obligations when carrying out space activities. States usually respond to these obligations by implementing national regulations that commercial companies need to comply with.

Licensing: A key undertaking required for your operation

Article VI of the OST obligates states to authorize, license, and continually supervise national and non-governmental space activities. Your country is responsible for your actions and activities in space. To conduct activities in space, it is up to each country to give these responsibilities to different agencies. Generally, you are required the go-ahead in the form of a license to start your commercial space activity.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has the authority to license launches, launch sites, and reentries. Regulatory agencies like the FAA provide companies with regulations, guidelines, and authorization requirements. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in charge of telecommunications matters and frequency allocations. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) deals with remote sensing. Finally, the Department of State and the Department of Commerce are responsible for providing export control licences.

The Liability Convention, imposes liability upon states for any damage that is caused by its space activities. Governments supervising commercial launches are usually mitigating the risk of being solely in charge of covering compensation costs by requiring the launch operator to buy insurance. (Secure World Foundation, 2015)

Licences will be required:

  • for the transferred information (IP) because there is an interaction between the satellite contract and the launcher services contract
  • to transfer the ownership of a satellite
  • to launch the satellite
  • to operate the satellite:

               – frequencies

               – regulatory body

               – landing rights to broadcast into certain countries

To communicate to and retrieve data from your satellite that will eventually be used for your service or product, you usually rely on electromagnetic radiation. By the laws of physics, the available spectrum for electromagnetic radiation is a scarce resource. This resource is managed and coordinated by an international body, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The ITU allocates the available communication frequency slots to countries and the free market. Your country usually has an authority providing frequency licenses. In some countries, you even have brokers that function as an intermediary between you and the local authorities (Secure World Foundation, 2015).

Necessary steps for the frequency allocation:

  1. Application to the ITU
  2. Frequency coordination
    Contact the entity in charge of frequency coordination to avoid the overlap of frequencies (several parties using the same frequency range). For example, European Radiocommunications Committee in Europe.
  3. Frequency optimization

Frequency allocation comes along with the “bring it into use” obligation. There is a 7 years time period to complete the coordination and bring the satellite into service. It is also a game of negotiation, if you get a smaller part of frequencies, as you look at the profitability, think about making an agreement with another astropreneur to have another satellite on the launcher, also called “shared payloads”.

Registering your space object

Registering your space object is an obligation placed upon states according to Articles III and IV of the Registration Convention, in regards to the states which are party to this Convention. Any space object information needs to be provided to the Secretary-General in the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to be included in the international registry of space objects. Some states have established a listing of their space objects in a national registry and then provide it to the Secretary-General to be included in the international registry.

Legal frameworks applying to your operation

Depending on what your startup is going to do in the space sector, there might be boundaries originating from the space treaties that will impact your business.

To give you an introduction on the main differences between the regulations applying to various space regimes, we have created an overview. The following table highlights which legal frameworks might apply to your activity. In our Treasure Map, we provide links with further information on these regimes and on national space law.

Regulatory breakdown by space regimes.
Credit: Astropreneurs

Key takeaways

  • While the international treaties provide a level of consistency internationally, there are some differences in how these treaties are implemented within various countries’ national regulations.
  • The landscape of national space law regarding commercial activities is changing consistently over time. Approach the authorities responsible for licensing space activities early on and establish personal relationships.
  • Some national space law systems require commercial space companies to acquire insurance for their space activities. Each country with a regulatory regime handles the licensing process differently. Pay careful attention to the licensing requirements in your country, specifically insurance coverage.
  • Hire a professional lawyer who understands international space law. There are experienced professionals who know the particularities of both international and national space law regimes.


Questions to ask yourself before take off!

  • What industry, market segment, and customers am I targeting?
  • Will my space activities be subject to space law?
  • Which licences do I need for my business?
  • Who are the authorities in my country that are licensing space activities?
  • How can I get in touch with these authorities? How can I establish a relationship with these authorities?
  • What insurance do I need to get a license for my business?
  • Where are insurance requirements outlined?

Further reading:

Posted by Emeline De Antonio and Timo Rühl