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Into uncharted territory: as New Zealand’s space industry takes off, can we create laws that allow it to grow while keeping it in check?

New Zealand has finally enacted a legislative framework that governs activities which are linked to New Zealand in outer space, with the new Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act (Space Act) coming into force on 21 December 2017.   

This is recognition of the fact that New Zealand is now en route to the status of an emerging space-faring nation.

The new framework establishes a licensing agency known as the New Zealand Space Agency, which will oversee New Zealand applications made by entities that wish to conduct activities in space.

There has been a rise in the research over the possibility of providing more commercially led space-based services from New Zealand, given its unique geo-location on the planet that makes it ideal for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) services. These are usually based at an altitude of approximately 2,000km and an orbital period of approximately 90 to 100 minutes.

LEO is fast becoming an orbit of interest to a wide range of space service providers as a result of the lower costs associated with launch and fuel consumption, which in of-itself, is a basis to provide lower-cost space-based solutions to the end consumer.

The process will involve the presentation of a wide range of information by the applicant in order to satisfy the licensing agency requirements in its consideration to grant a particular license or permit application.

However, there is still much work to do on the new licensing regime and this includes whether or not the licensing agency will develop a publicly available register that outlines which entities have applied for a license, the progress of their license application and details of the intended space-based service.

Further, the act requires that an applicant provides a space-debris mitigation plan, however there is presently little, if any, guidance on this. One fundamental issue is that the Space Act does not define what constitutes space-debris. For example, is the launch vehicle that has been discarded during the launch phase considered debris? Would debris also include an out-of-control satellite, or is it something else?

Another example is the lack of clear guidance as to what may or may not constitute a payload – or put another way, what can an applicant put into space?

The Space Act requires that applicants not undertake any activity which would put New Zealand in breach of its international obligations. However, not only is international law around space activities complex, wide and varied, but there is a call by many space experts that international space law is in need of major redevelopment.  The international law pertaining to obligations in space is scattered among many instruments and will require expert review over the specific obligations that New Zealand owes at the international level in order to ensure that applicants are consistent with them during the application stage.

The Space Act is the first step in establishing a space-based licensing framework governing the activities of entities wishing to undertake space-based activities. But as the space industry grows in New Zealand, the space licensing framework will also require more attention. Clearer guidelines and regulations will need to be developed.

Dr Maria A Pozza is a corporate and commercial lawyer at Govett Quilliam. and an expert in New Zealand space law and international space law.
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