Working in Outer Space Opens a New Galaxy of Legal Problems; Blast- Off: An Ariane- Rocket Carrying Two British and Indian Satellites Lifts off from the Kourou Space Base, French Guiana, Last Year but Experts Warn Such Ventures Are Fraught with Financial and Legal Risks under UK Law

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Byline: JOSHUA ROZENBERG

PLANS to keep Britain at the "forefront of the evolving space scene"could be jeopardised by legal restrictions, according to a specialist in outerspace law. Launching a four-year space strategy in February, the Governmentstressed the importance of satellite systems to Britain's quality of life,commercial competitiveness and security"connecting us into a global network of information, communication andnavigation systems".

Space currently contributes about [pounds sterling]7 billion a year to the British economy andthe Government wants to increase our share of "this growing internationalsector".

A paper published by the British National Space Centre on behalf of 10Government departments and research councils suggested it was not too soon toget ready for holidays in space.

"A suitable regulatory regime is needed to attract the emerging sectors such ascommercial sub-orbital and orbital tourism," the space centre said..

But a suitable regulatory regime is precisely what we do not have in Britain,according to Tony Ballard, a partner in Harbottle & Lewis.

The solicitor, who also chairs the UK branch of the European Centre for SpaceLaw, says that legislation passed more than 20 years ago still has a "chillingeffect" on investment in space.

Section 10 of the Outer Space Act 1986 says that British nationals andcompanies must indemnify the Government against any claims brought against itfor loss or damage arising from the launch or operation of satellites and otherspace objects.

Responsibility for compensating the Government extends to anyone who causesspace activity to occur or is responsible for its continuing. That wordingseems wide enough to cover bankers and other investors. It may even covercommunications regulators.

At first sight, it may seem reasonable for companies to pay the price of theirown negligence. But the legislation was not designed with ordinary civil claimsin mind. Instead, says Ballard, it covers claims brought against Britain byother "space-faring" governments under international treaties signed in 1967and 1972.

Ballard is very concerned with the problem of space debris "smearing itselfround the orbital path". This can be anything from paint chips or shards ofmetal from the explosive bolts that are shot off when a satellite opens itssolar panels to entire spacecraft dumped in perpetual orbit. …