Sky no limit for outer space Act

The sky is no longer the limit for New Zealand business after the passage this month of the Outer Space and High Altitude Activities Act.

This follows Rocket Lab's launch in May of an orbital class rocket from Mahia Peninsula – a first from a private launch site anywhere in the world and a development that puts New Zealand among only 11 countries with the potential to propel cargo into space.

The new regime

The Act regulates space launches from New Zealand and by New Zealand nationals overseas, both of launch vehicles (e.g. rockets) and payloads (e.g. satellites). It imposes separate obligations on the company launching the rocket (such as Rocket Lab) and the owner of the payload or satellite which is being launched.

Key features
  • Persons launching vehicles capable of or intended to travel into space must be licensed.
  • Persons procuring the launch of a payload on the licensee's launch vehicle must obtain a permit.
  • Applicants for licenses or permits must show that they are capable of managing the launch or payload safely, that they have plans to manage orbital debris, and that the launch or payload operation is consistent with New Zealand's international obligations, among other things.
  • An application may be declined if the Minister is not satisfied the activity is within the national interest – meaning that it aligns with New Zealand's economic interests and does not pose any risks to national security, public safety and international relations.
  • Licensees and permit-holders have various ongoing obligations, including to provide information to the Minister about their operations and to conduct their operations in ways that minimise environmental contamination in space. Licensees are also required to consult with the Civil Aviation Authority, the Airways Corporation of New Zealand, Maritime New Zealand and Land Information New Zealand.

Chapman Tripp comment

The legislation recognises and seeks to regulate the commercialisation of space activity to protect public safety, the environment and New Zealand's international commitments.  

In doing so, it imposes legal obligations on not just companies like Rocket Lab, but also on companies whose goods are being sent into orbit. Specified government organisations too – such as Maritime New Zealand and the Civil Aviation Authority – will also need to be aware of the interface between their regulatory domains and the new regime.    

The Act also brings into focus some relatively obscure international instruments, like the Outer Space Treaty 1967 and the Space Liability Convention of 1972. The former – barring nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in space – is unlikely to be much of a concern for New Zealand businesses and regulators. 

But the Space Liability Convention imposes responsibility for launches of space objects on the state in which the object was launched. As a matter of international law, New Zealand may be liable for anything that goes wrong with space launches from its territory.

Our thanks to Ollie Neas for writing this Brief Counsel.

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Related topics: International trade & investment; Space

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