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This is what it looks like for a private capsule to enter the Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 25.

Varda Space Industries achieved a significant breakthrough in space technology by successfully landing a capsule in the Utah desert on February 21. The landing, part of the company’s efforts to demonstrate the production of pharmaceuticals in space, took place at a test and training site west of Salt Lake City.

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This mission, carried out in collaboration with Rocket Lab, used a capsule from the Varda W-Series 1 spacecraft, launched in June 2023 as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-8 mission aboard Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft. The main goal was to test space-based manufacturing technologies by obtaining crystals of ritonavir, an HIV drug, that would be returned to Earth for analysis.

Varda has faced a number of regulatory hurdles, including delays in obtaining a commercial return license from the US Federal Aviation Administration and required clearances from the US Air Force. However, after being licensed on February 14 and cleared to land on February 21, Varda completed the mission flawlessly.

 

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The capsule’s re-entry created a stir as Varda released footage of the space capsule’s fiery descent through the Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 25, from separation from its carrier satellite to landing on desert sand.

 

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck praised the mission as “a monumental achievement and an impressive demonstration of teamwork,” noting its success in demonstrating space-based manufacturing and safe return of a pharmaceutical product on the first try. The capsule will be transported to Varda’s headquarters in California for thorough analysis, and the ritonavir samples on board will be sent to Improved Pharma in Indiana for further study.

Moreover, Varda plans to share reentry data with NASA and the Air Force as part of the contract, bringing valuable insights into the dynamics of space capsule re-entry. This successful mission not only paves the way for future space manufacturing endeavors, but also has implications for human spaceflight. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck noted potential applications for the Neutron rocket they are developing.

 

Varda is already preparing for a second mission, scheduled for a summer launch, in partnership with Rocket Lab. This time, the plan is to land the capsule at the Coonibba Proving Ground in South Australia, an agreement reached with Southern Launch in October. This upcoming mission is expected to face fewer logistical challenges due to fewer competing users, promising a smoother implementation of Varda’s innovative space manufacturing efforts.

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