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The Impact of Regulation on Space Engineering Decisions

By Alex Linossier

SLC-ANZ Director Alex Linossier discusses how engineering decisions are impacted by regulations in the space context by having a chat with New Zealand and Netherlands based start-up, Dawn Aerospace.

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Engineering is often considered to be a purely technical effort, designing and selecting the best solutions to a particular problem or set of needs based on system performance. However, in commercial settings in particular, there are a broad range of other non-technical factors that directly impact engineering decisions, including system cost, supply chain stability, time to delivery, staff resourcing, and market demand; factors which can often influence a decision far more strongly than technical performance or reliability. Commercial systems, services, and products must be developed to be commercially viable, competitive, and most importantly, legally compliant or certifiable.

In the space industry and other engineering heavy industries, regulations have a strong impact on product and service design, engineering processes, and even company structure from the earliest stages of company operations. In this article, we speak to James Powell (Co-Founder, CFO & Chief Spaceplane Engineer) and Tim Dutton (Operations/Certification Team Lead) from Dawn Aerospace about the impact of space launch and aviation regulations on their engineering processes and decisions, and the design and operation of the reusable spaceplane launch vehicle that Dawn is currently developing across New Zealand and The Netherlands.

Space and aviation regulations do not only act as a late-stage filter to prevent unsafe systems from operating once developed – they also inherently direct organisations to employ certain technologies and processes throughout the development and testing effort. Different regulations or regulatory approaches can encourage or discourage specific or seemingly unrelated engineering decisions, some examples of which are provided here by James and Tim. Flow on secondary impacts include hiring different people with specific experience in a given technology, increased or decreased staff time, and even international moves by companies to better access export restricted technologies or more robust supply chains.

These impacts are not immediately obvious to those outside of those development efforts and engineering teams, which can lead to poorly designed regulation or policy that is unnecessarily restrictive or ineffective at achieving the desired outcomes. Conversely, well-designed regulatory regimes managed by experienced regulators that recognise the impacts on every stage of the engineering process can encourage innovation while ensuring public and environmental safety and, in the case of both space and aviation regulation, compliance with international obligations. This in turn can assist governments or regulating authorities to achieve broader strategic objectives such as environmental protection, economic growth, jobs creation, or critical sovereign capability development.

Dawn Aerospace


Founded in 2017 by Stefan Powell, Jeroen Wink, Tobias Knop, James Powell and Robert Werner, Dawn is a purpose-driven space company.  Their talented team comprises over 130 people split 50/50 between the Netherlands and New Zealand, and sales in the USA. To develop their space transportation network, they are providing and developing several technologies – they are a leading supplier of turnkey, green-propulsion systems for various classes of satellites. Their systems utilise safe, accessible propellants and have flown on Falcon 9, Vega and Soyuz rockets.

Beyond their well-established commercial offering of in-space propulsion, they continuously work on R&D programmes. Their Mk-II Aurora spaceplane demonstrator has completed 50 successful flights, and they recently completed the first campaign utilising rocket engines. Mk-II is unique in that it combines the performance of a rocket and the rapid reusability and economic model of an aircraft. While Mk-II is a technology demonstrator, it will also be used as a suborbital vehicle for climate and scientific payloads. Longer-term, Mk-II will inform the design of their larger sub-orbital vehicle, the Mk-III spaceplane, with a 250kg+ payload used to launch satellites. 

Image: The Mk-II (rocket) and Mk-III spaceplanes takeoff from regular runways before reaching space, and in the case of the Mk-III, deploying an upper stage to take payloads into orbit. (credit: Dawn Aerospace)

Dawn’s Mk-III spaceplane launch vehicle operates in a new way compared to traditional vertical space launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 or NASA’s Space Launch System. Taking off from a regular airport runway, the spaceplane is a remotely piloted aircraft, with sub-orbital operations that exceed the altitudes and speeds of civil aviation aircraft. The Mk-II spaceplane, while not deploying payloads into orbit, still exceeds the altitudes of New Zealand’s civil aviation regulations during high-altitude flight. Recognising the fact that these spaceplanes operate according to two different regulatory regimes, Dawn has worked closely with New Zealand regulators to develop a unique approach to the licensing system that ensures public safety and international compliance while enabling testing and development of an innovative space launch vehicle. Knowledge of regulations is embedded into every team at the company, not only the regulatory and certification team, and this has influenced the way they develop, test, and operate their spaceplanes.

Interview with Dawn Aerospace's Tim Dutton and James Powell

Tim Dutton, Operations/Certification Team Lead. Formerly: CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) Flight Test Engineer, Head of Aircraft Test at Martin Aircraft Company, Aeronautical Engineering MEng (Hons) 


James Powell, Co-Founder, CFO & Chief Spaceplane Engineer. Formerly: CAA Design Engineering Delegate, Team Leader Airwork, Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering  


How are regulations incorporated into your engineering processes (design, build, test, operate) or trade-offs?  How are your engineering staff trained or made aware of regulatory requirements?

Tim - Firstly, we have recruited people with skill sets and knowledge in these areas. Secondly, for those without that experience, we have provided internal and external training and learning opportunities.   

We have a team who are dedicated to certification activities whether that is related to the spaceplane design, operations of the spaceplane in airspace, or operations of the spaceplane at high altitudes. We have also setup processes to ensure the engineers designing the systems are aware of the relevant regulatory issues and where necessary. The certification team support design engineers to ensure what is designed and operated meets relevant criteria.  

Who are the people at your company responsible for regulatory compliance?  

Tim - One of the key rules sets that Dawn Aerospace operates under is Civil Aviation Rules Part 102. Within this rule, there is a requirement for a ‘Prime Person’. This individual needs to have sufficient control of the organisation to ensure the company remains compliant with relevant rules and governing internal documents. The primary governing internal document is known as the Exposition. This document provides a process around all aspects of designing, manufacturing, operating, and maintaining the spaceplane. It is the responsibility of everyone in the team to adhere to the Exposition. For specific roles where there is a high degree of responsibility, the Prime Person provides specific authorisations which are underpinned by competency assessment.  

What are some examples of engineering decisions or system/operations designs that have been affected by regulation?  

Tim – One of the key elements of the is what level of reliability individual components or systems need to have. We use a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular for guidance on this. In essence, we look at how components in the system might fail and then look at the overall effect on the aircraft and public safety. If the effect on the aircraft or public safety is significant, the required reliability is high. This can lead to design architecture changes or selection of specific components to meet requirements. 

What was the regulation that influenced their design?  

Tim - We consider the spaceplane as an aircraft with performance like a rocket, not a rocket with wings. This means our primary regulation that influences design comes from remotely piloted aircraft (akin to conventional aviation). However, this is clearly not the complete picture. Both rocket engines for propulsion and high-altitude flight are not commonplace in aviation, and therefore we use launch-type regulation to supplement where necessary. Due to the lack of specific New Zealand Regulations, we leverage FAA Regulations to help support our applications.


CAA and the performance-based nature of Part 102 have been instrumental in facilitating an approval that permits flight frequency akin to that of an aircraft, which can be orders on magnitude higher than traditional rocket licences.  

In practice this means we use a combination of standards and guidance material from Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS), FAA, European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and ASTM standards for remotely piloted vehicles. These all affect the design of the aircraft and the safety requirements that need to be satisfied.  

We see benefits in this approach as it allows for a more scalable business model for space launches.

How could engagement with the regulator(s) improve the suitability of regulations in this context?  

James – One of the issues with the regulation is a lack of harmony between Civil Aviation Rules and the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act. There is a boundary at 60,000 ft which triggers the latter. There are some differences in the emphasis in the rule sets. For example, in the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act, there is emphasis on the payload carried and its capabilities, whereas in the Civil Aviation Rules there is much less emphasis on payload aspects (unless the payload is classified as dangerous goods).  

We are engaging with both regulators to understand the relationship between the regulations and their remits.  Sufficient investment in regulatory development is critical to ensure regulations stay up to date, relevant and not unduly cumbersome.  

Specifically, as far as we understand it, we have driven the setup of a unique launch licence, which transitions from CAA to New Zealand Space Agency (NZSA) permits during launch operations. This is a great example of regulation incorporating a new way of operating or a new technology.  

Can you describe how this launch permit system works?  

Tim - The terminology of a launch permit is not reflective of what we have. To operate the spaceplane vehicle in New Zealand, we will require a Part 102 certificate from the CAA and a high-altitude Licence from the NZSA. In a simple sense, Part 102 covers the operation up to 60,000 ft and the high-altitude licence covers beyond that. The licence structure does not permit a ‘launch’, it licences an operation which can be repeatedly conducted until the licence expires, which typically is in the order of years.   

What were the major steps you undertook to setup and obtain that type of permit?  


Tim - We started small and used a build-up approach. Initially, Dawn Aerospace obtained a Part 102 certificate for low speeds and altitudes without a rocket engine. Then the 102 certificate was extended to allow for increased speeds, altitudes, and added a rocket engine. Then the flight envelope is increased further and a NZSA licence will also be obtained. Having both requires the two regulators to work together, although their remits are defined. The CAA is required to confirm to the NZSA that the operation has the required certificate. In practice, the Part 102 certificate comes first and is followed by the high-altitude licence, assuming that the rest of the conditions are met. 

How has this experience compared to your experience with other regulators (in NZ or overseas)?  

James - We have not materially engaged regulators overseas yet regarding Dawn operations. In our team’s work with international regulators in work prior to Dawn the major differences have been in size of the regulator and everything that comes with that. CAA have smaller budgets and fewer experienced people than say FAA and EASA. This necessitates more work by the applicant to collect and justify the relevant compliance data. The substantial benefit of a small team is it is easy to find and work with the right people.  

Could launch regulations be improved to maintain or improve safety, while promoting launch industry growth? How?  

James - We believe there are significant opportunities to empower the industry further, facilitate faster growth and not compromise safety of the public. In the domain of human-rated aircraft, CAA presently use a model for engineering delegated authority which is similar to that used by FAA and EASA. This structure has been used for many decades. It highly empowers industry to conduct a substantial amount of engineering work, all while the regulator may audit that work at any time. Presently, CAA do not apply this delegated authority model for remotely piloted aircraft which are lower risk than aircraft with people on board. The well-established implementation of this structure globally coupled with the lower risk environment of remotely piloted vehicle (RPAS) operations means that we believe that CAA have good precedent to implement such methods in the RPAS industry. Doing so would reduce CAA operational expenses, allow industry to respond quickly to variations in demand, and expand an existing, high value industry.  

What would you like to see more of from regulators and policy makers?  


James - We would like to see more guidance material – particularly Advisory Circulars (ACs) - on acceptable methods of compliance. 

We would also like to thank the late Tim Dutton for his passion, expertise, and dedication to advancing aerospace technology and aviation regulation in New Zealand. Tim has left an indelible mark, and through these shared words, we aim to honour his memory and continue to inspire innovation in his name.


Further Enquiries

Space Law Council Australia and New Zealand


Dawn Aerospace

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