Do you remember how it used to feel roaming around unknown cities or driving across unfamiliar territories prior the introduction of GPS systems? Have you ever thought what it means for a seafarer to have the possibility to contact his loved ones wherever his ship happens to be around the globe? Do you remember that amazing feeling when you tracked an aircraft for the first time on your laptop, or when you connected for the first time to the internet while on board an aircraft across the oceans? All these simple actions which are now part of our day-to-day life can only happen thanks to a satellite or a constellation of satellites often as big as a finger rotating around the world. The above is all the result of the commercialisation of Space. In fact, with private entities having gained access to space over the last two decades, interest in space as an industry has sparked. Such interest is of no wonder considering that it is estimated that the space industry will grow to approximately USD 2,3trillion by 2030. The EU itself allocated over 16 Billion Euros to boost this sector.
We are living the next industrial revolution. An era based on accessible, sustainable and inclusive technology meant to change the way we live. Space is the instrument through which most of the world’s information will be channelled in the future. No need for wires or cables. Everyone on earth, even in the most remote area of the globe will be able to access internet and therefore reach out to everyone. The space industry is not limited to space tourism activities, but includes more traditional military and defence, as well as communication and R&D development areas with a tangible influence on our day-to-day life. The fact that skies and orbits are theoretically in everybody’s reach is a gamechanger and an opportunity an open economy like ours cannot miss.
Space activities were always associated with State-led programmes mainly under the duopoly of the defunct Soviet Union and the USA. During the Cold War period, private operators were denied access to commercial space activities and no private organization could offer space launches: private entities would take part in space programmes only as contractors to government organizations. The U.S. civilian space program and the Soviet space program would operate using mainly military pilots as astronauts.
Although the U.S. Communications Satellite Act of 1962 allowed commercial consortia to launch satellites through the deployment of state-owned launch vehicles, it is only in the 21st century that private activities witnessed a sharp increase and a more tangible presence in our orbits. In fact, in the early 2000s US authorities encouraged space intervention by private players by funding a series of programs meant to incentivise private companies to offer both cargo, and later, crew space transportation services.
The introduction of lower and standard prices for launch services after 2010 has rendered skies and orbits accessible to everyone. Not a thing for big States but a universe for everyone. Even earlier, the US Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 further updated through the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 had legalised private space flights. Similar initiatives were also introduced by major space nations such as Australia and the UK, with new players like Luxembourg and Dubai emerging on the scene. Liberalisation in the 90ies allowed aviation to blossom from a stagnant into one of the most dynamic sectors in the world. Space privatisation proportion will be even wider.
Unification of laws and regulations
Laws and regulations in a civilised world are the equivalent of a lighthouse for a captain. During the last 100 years, shipping and aviation required the drafting, ratification, implementation and update of dozens of international conventions. Rules brought uniformity and consequentially stability, certainty and efficiency. Such treaties played a fundamental role in the stable and constant growth of such sectors, as it is only through the unification of laws and regulations across the globe that vessels and aircraft operators from different jurisdictions and backgrounds were able to operate smoothly in the same global environment.
The only 5 International conventions regulating space (shipping itself is regulated by over 50 international conventions) adopted in the ‘60s are almost entirely outdated and do not reflect technological advances made in the sector in the last decades and the recent entry into play of private entities. Several aspects such as State liability are tackled through an anachronistic approach, while the ones regarding space debris management are completely absent. The legal vacuum in this ambit obliged countries and space agencies to take action on their own through various instruments of soft law. The result is confusion and lack of uniform measures while our orbits are more and more congested with the risk of collisions happening on a regular basis. Space is not “no man’s land”, in that measures should not be adopted unilaterally. The economic exploitation of space should only happen if common rules are adopted to the benefit of everyone, and the preservation of the environment.
Meanwhile some attempts to introduce common rules have been made. For instance, the Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment (the “Convention”) and the Space Assets Protocol (The “Berlin Protocol”) promoted by Unidroit. The purpose of the Berlin Protocol is to render asset-based financing more accessible by creating a uniform regime, through the use of a centralised electronic registry, meant to govern the creation, perfection and enforcement of international interests over space assets in such manner creditors would be provided with basic default and insolvency-related remedies and in case of default, the possibility of obtaining almost immediate relief while claims on the merits are still pending. Its entry into force will constitute a step towards a new era for space asset financing and hopefully the start towards a unified space law.
Malta: Replicating Success within the Aviation and Shipping Sector
Malta needs to look at the experience of countries like Luxembourg and the Isle of Man whose size and resources are similar to the Maltese ones. In these countries, an incredible amount of energy was directed towards the achievement of one goal: breaking through in this sector with a fair amount of innovation and efficiency. Our starting point should be decades of experience in licensing and registration of assets such as sea vessels and aircrafts, bearing in mind that the space industry requires more agility and an extreme reactive attitude towards technological advances and challenges.
The lack of physical space, which usually represents the most significant handicap for the expansion of the shipping and aviation sector, can be quite easily overcome in Malta through mobile launching platforms such as ships, aircrafts and oil rigs. Malta could also create a vital manufacturing sector focused on the production of microchips and assembly of products. This would attract the creation of novel and upskilled work force made up of specialised engineers and technicians
All this can happen through forward-looking authorities made up of skilled and passionate persons, an achievable goal.
Malta can and should become the epicentre of a tangible industry the effects of which can be perceived by the whole community. From assembly to launch passing through legal and related services up and above because for the first time in Maltese history, sky is no longer the limit.
This article was first published on the Times of Malta on 16.11.2021.