20 Sep 2023
by Akshay Sewlikar, Imogen Ormerod

Astra Carta – Lift off for a sustainable space industry?

Guest blog from Imogen Ormerod and Akshay Sewlikar at Linklaters. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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Space is increasingly within reach. It plays a vital role in shaping our future existence and is now more accessible than ever thanks to developing science and cutting-edge technology.

At present, the space domain is governed by international treaties that were primarily written at a time when only a few nation states had access to space. Today, over 70 nations have a space agency and the private sector is playing an increasingly significant role in space exploration and development. Over a third of orbital launches in 2022 were commercial spacecraft carried by commercial vehicles, while an additional 18% of orbital launches were conducted by companies serving government clients.[1]

This growth trajectory (especially in respect of private companies) brings with it challenges as well as opportunities, in particular how to ensure that the orbits around earth (as well as those beyond) remain accessible. The risks need to be well-understood and, where possible, mitigated.

The increased focus on space sustainability has an important role in the management of risk – encouraging responsible access to, and use of, space. The Astra Carta (unveiled by King Charles on 28 June 2023 at Buckingham Palace) is targeted at this issue. It complements the UK’s National Space Strategy, launched in 2021, which emphasises the importance of ensuring that the space environment remains safe, secure and sustainable.

The Astra Carta aims to provide a framework to accelerate sustainable practices across the global space industry – creating markets that reward sustainable practices in order to incentivise sustainable growth. The expectation (amongst others) is that by aligning private sector, governments and international organisations in a shared endeavour this will deliver more effective regulation of, and greater accountability for, the use we make of space.

The Charter’s overarching aim is to “care for the infinite wonders of the universe”. It is a collective call to action for the responsible and sustainable use of outer space. Amongst other things, it highlights the importance of investing in the technology and infrastructure that enable on-orbit activity (repairs, refuelling and upgrading of satellites) along with enhanced tracking and monitoring capabilities (including automated collision avoidance systems). As well as reducing the need for new launches and minimising space debris, such technology should extend asset life and minimise downtime – providing investors with greater returns.

Enhanced capability is however only part of the solution.

Communication and cooperation between operators is also necessary, for example to enable safe operations as orbits become increasingly crowded and to better address emerging threats and vulnerabilities. The Astra Carta recognises, for example, the importance of a collective approach to space traffic management, with common standards, definitions, languages and modes of interoperability. International cooperation between the UK and other nations across the globe in relation to the exchange of data, information and best practices should enhance the overall safety and sustainability of space activities.

The Astra Carta also emphasises the importance of developing international standards, protocols and guidelines for responsible space operations. This includes standards for satellite operations, orbital debris mitigation and space traffic management. It encourages comprehensive space policies for the private sector that align with such international norms, principles and guidelines, to ensure coherence, consistency and compatibility in space activities. It also identifies the benefit of developing sustainable insurance policies that incentivise safe and responsible space operations.

These and other mechanisms envisaged by the Astra Carta would go a long way for space operators in terms of risk mitigation. Private space companies are exposed to risks on various fronts, including space debris collisions and exposure to insurance risks. Compliance with a set of internationally agreed standards would allow private companies to assess, quantify and reduce such risks. Legal liability for such risks is currently governed by the domestic laws of each country. These were often introduced to discharge that nation’s responsibilities under international treaties concluded in the 1970-80s, which are currently not fit for purpose and expose companies to legal uncertainty. The Astra Carta explicitly recognises this issue and aims to facilitate “the peaceful resolution of disputes related to space activities through diplomatic negotiations, mediation and adherence to international law, including the United Nations Charter and relevant treaties.

More robust and effective regulation, with broad international support (including a focus on developing international law) will provide for effective and standardised mechanisms for the resolution of disputes. It will also enhance certainty for private sector companies, improve access to finance and encourage investment in development and deployment of new space technologies and services.

The UK is already implementing policies to realise the ambitions of the Astra Carta. For example, the government is working with industry to develop a new Space Sustainability Standard, which aims to reward responsible and sustainable space activities. By working with and through international fora, actively supporting sustainable space policies and initiatives and seeking to establish global leadership in space sustainability, the UK is at the forefront of efforts to promote a safe, secure and sustainable space environment.

You can find out more about Linklaters' work on space and satellites by clicking here.

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[1]     Source: Bryce Tech “2022 Orbital Launches Year in Review” (February 2023)


Akshay Sewlikar

Akshay Sewlikar

Managing Associate, Linklaters

Imogen Ormerod

Imogen Ormerod

Energy & Infrastructure Associate, Linklaters