International regulatory cooperation on space activities

Cooperating with overseas regulators and unilaterally recognising other countries’ regulatory regimes helped deliver effective regulation quickly and cost effectively.

IRC option: Unilateral recognition

Read more about the cooperation options

Sector: Space

On 21 January 2018, Rocket Lab’s Electron Launch Vehicle lifted off from the Mahia Launch Complex 1 and carried 3 satellites into orbit. This was the first time that a commercial rocket launched from a privately owned and operated spaceport reached orbit. The successful launch was a significant step in developing New Zealand’s commercial space industry.

New Zealand’s regulatory regime has supported new space activities

Striking the right balance between facilitating innovation and providing strong regulatory protections is essential for New Zealand’s emerging space industry. The New Zealand Space Agency (NZSA) is the regulator of space activities in New Zealand, and it sits within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

When a new technology poses risks to safety, detailed prescriptive regulation should be developed to manage the risks.

However, prescriptive legislation is often inflexible and, therefore, unsuitable for an innovative industry. On the other hand, governments can facilitate innovation by tailoring regulation to the technology and making it adaptable to changes in the industry. This approach can require the regulator to have a high level of technical expertise and capacity.

This case study shows how a regulator can work with experienced overseas agencies to build technical capacity and reduce regulatory restrictions and burdens.

Lessons learnt

Start with common interests

Start in the areas where common interests between the US and NZ are the strongest. There were common interests in supporting Rocket Lab to test new technologies while managing the risks from these tests, and a mutual interest in promoting best regulatory practices.

Build relationships

Look for ways to build on the regulators’, such as the information-sharing mechanisms in the Memorandum of Cooperation between the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the US Federal Aviation Administration. Unilateral recognition does not formalise information sharing, which means that regulatory system changes, opportunities and risks may not be shared between the regulators over time. The Memorandum of Cooperation sets expectations for information sharing between the regulators.

Cooperation can reduce compliance costs and build in coordination

Regulatory cooperation can help a regulator to set up a new regime and reduce compliance costs where there are other regulators looking to encourage best practice. Cooperation can reduce the costs of duplicating assessments already carried out by another competent agency. Regulatory cooperation can build international coordination into the regulatory process, which is beneficial in an industry where international coordination is essential and can help New Zealand comply with international obligations.

Lessons on the benefits of international cooperation and unilateral recognition

Cooperating with US agencies and regulators has helped New Zealand to put a regulatory regime in place quickly, while allowing operators to test innovative products. This shows the benefits of working with an experienced regulator that aims to promote international best practice. The New Zealand Space Agency continues to develop its cooperative relationships and stay up to date with international best practice by engaging with other regulators and agencies in international fora.

Regulating space activities involved substantial challenges

  • There was no legislation designed to regulate space or high altitude activities.
  • New capacity and expertise was required to assess the risks involved with space activities.
  • The technology is rapidly evolving, and regulation that is too rigid could stifle development.
  • Space activities have the potential to cause serious harm to people, property and the environment.
  • Regulation should help New Zealand comply with the obligations that arise from international treaties.

Recognising US licensing systems supports a performance-based approach to regulation

A performance-based approach can require the regulator to have a high level of technical expertise or capability to check that an applicant’s plans will meet the desired outcomes, asthe legislation specifies the outcomes the operator must achieve but does not provide details on how they should do so. Unilateral recognition can allow a regulator, such as the New Zealand Space Agency to rely on the assessments used by other established and expert regulators, rather than carrying out the assessments itself.

The 'Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017' (the Act) allows the Minister to accept licences granted by overseas regulators as satisfying certain criteria, such as proof of technical capability and assuring that public safety risks are mitigated. In practice, the New Zealand Space Agency assesses an overseas authority’s regulatory processes and institutional arrangements to determine if they provide adequate protection. This can include examining the types of assessments required by the authority, its decision-making processes, how the authority audits its own processes, staff training and government oversight.

Cooperation between the New Zealand government and US agencies and regulators helped the New Zealand Space Agency to build a regulatory regime in a short period of time. Rocket Lab is a US company with a New Zealand subsidiary, and it is subject to the US launch licensing regime as well as New Zealand’s jurisdiction.

On 8 February 2018, MBIE signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on recognition of licences and regulatory cooperation. The Memorandum sets out the key features of the U.S. regulatory system that enables the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to have confidence that the FAA’s system and standards meet New Zealand’s requirements. The FAA grants licences for rocket launches, and it assesses the safety plans and technical competency of applicants as part of this process. New Zealand Space Agency recognises the FAA’s licences as meeting safety and technical capability requirements for Rocket Lab’s launches in New Zealand.

A risk with unilateral recognition can be that there is no formalised requirement for information sharing, which means that over time the recognising country might miss out on critical information about the operation of the regulatory system that it has recognised. To manage this risk, the Memorandum of Cooperation between MBIE and the FAA includes provisions on  information exchange about regulatory activities. There is communication between the agencies after every launch, and they have regular teleconferences. They continue to look for ways to improve cooperation, sharing information about opportunities, training, and risks. The open channel of communication and strong connections have made informal communication easier and helped the regulators deal with challenges as they arise.

Unilateral recognition helps NZSA manage orbital debris

It is important for New Zealand to manage and mitigate the orbital debris generated by objects launched into space because debris which is travelling at high speeds can cause serious damage to satellites or other objects in space. The Act requires applicants for a payload permit or launch licence to submit an orbital debris mitigation plan. Managing and monitoring orbital debris is a complex process where a large number of objects travelling at different speeds and altitudes need to be taken into account. In the US, the Combined Space Operations Centre detects, tracks, and identifies objects orbiting Earth. As of February 2023, there are more than 26,000 catalogued objects orbiting the Earth.

The Minister has recognised authorisations from a number of overseas agencies as satisfying New Zealand’s requirements for an orbital debris mitigation plan. Recognising overseas agency authorisations means that applicants do not need to resubmit their plans to the New Zealand Space Agency for assessment. It also reduces the upfront costs of building regulatory capacity. The Government decided that it could rely on best-practice international assessments to manage certain risks that arise from space activities, such as orbital debris. The international standards are well understood, accepted and subject to regular review by technical experts.

Drawing on international experience fosters best practice

US agencies had a number of interests in Rocket Lab’s success which meant they wanted to assist NZSA to be effective. For example, US agencies appreciated that the US space industry would benefit from technological innovation by a US company in New Zealand. New Zealand also entered into the Technology Safeguards Agreement with the US to assure the US that sensitive space technology (such as the Electron launch vehicle) would be protected. The US agencies played a significant role in developing international standards, and they wanted New Zealand’s regime to be in line with international practises. The US also wishes to foster interoperability between international space regulatory regimes.

There is a risk that newcomers to the regulation of an activity like space activities, where international cooperation is necessary, might create rules which inhibit effective cooperation in the future. The US agencies played a significant role in developing international standards, and they wanted New Zealand’s regime to be in line with international best practices. New regulators of innovative technologies can use this as a basis for seeking assistance from experienced regulators.

Both the US and New Zealand have obligations relating to liability for the damage caused by objects where they are the launching State. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty) makes states responsible for objects launched from their territory or by entities from their jurisdiction. The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (Liability Convention) makes the launching state absolutely liable to pay compensation for any damage its space objects cause to other parties, or to third states, on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight, and on a fault basis in-orbit.

While state liability might not be an issue for other innovative technologies, regulators in a country with an established industry might want to cooperate internationally with other regulators of the same activity to ensure the industry maintains a positive reputation and continues to provide benefits for that country.


  • June 2016
    Technology Safeguards Agreement between New Zealand and the USA, setting out arrangements for using the technology developed in the US.
  • September 2016
    Contract signed between the New Zealand Government and Rocket Lab, which was used as an interim regulatory measure while the Legislation was developed.
  • December 2017
    Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Act 2017 commenced.
  • February 2018
    MBIE signs an agreement with the FAA on sharing information and research on best practice.
  • March 2019
    Rocket Lab granted launch and facility license under the Act.

References and sources

Managing the Opportunities and Risks Associated with Disruptive Technologies: space law in New Zealand(external link) — Victoria University of Wellington