Varda Space Industries says it has reached an agreement with a private range operator in Australia for spacecraft landings as early as next year after the US government declined to grant approval for the reentry of Varda’s first experimental mission carrying pharmaceuticals manufactured in orbit.
After years of applications, reviews, and discussion, the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Air Force would not clear Varda’s spacecraft to land at a military test range in the Utah desert last month. An Air Force spokesperson told Ars it did not grant approval for the landing “due to the overall safety, risk, and impact analysis.”
Likewise, the FAA denied Varda’s application for a commercial reentry license in early September. Varda’s first small satellite mission launched The company’s leaders say they are still working with the FAA and the Air Force in hopes of getting the spacecraft back to Earth in Utah in the coming months, but now they’re looking at other options for future missions.
Varda eventually plans to launch regularly scheduled missions into low-Earth orbit to host pharmaceutical research experiments and manufacture drugs and other products in a microgravity environment. Fueled by venture capital funding, the California-based startup is launching an initial batch of four test missions to wring out the technologies required to make this vision a reality. Varda reported in June that it successfully grew crystals of ritonavir, a drug commonly used to treat HIV, inside its spacecraft a few weeks after launch.
One of the key technologies that needs to be tested is the reentry vehicle, a nearly 200-pound capsule approximately 3 feet (1 meter) wide that is mounted to the side of a satellite made by Rocket Lab. The reentry capsule will separate from the satellite shortly before plunging through the atmosphere, then release a parachute to slow for landing.
Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s chairman, president, and co-founder, said the company always planned to have multiple landing sites. Varda prioritized the search for another landing range after it failed to obtain US government approval for the landing of the first mission.
“It’s always been in the plan, but we definitely accelerated this,” Asparouhov said.
Landing site diversity
The agreement between Varda and Southern Launch, a company based in Adelaide, Australia, would allow Varda’s second mission, scheduled to launch in mid-2024, to reenter and land at the remote Koonibba Test Range.
“We plan, with the Koonibba Test Range, to conduct a reentry operation as soon as our second orbital mission, which the launch and reentry would be in mid-2024,” Asparouhov told Ars. “To be clear, this isn’t to say that we won’t be reentering in the United States on some regular basis as well.”
Asparouhov said it’s good to have options for reentry, similar to how launch companies use different launch pads and spaceports. The military’s Utah Test and Training Range is primarily used for military testing and exercises, although it has hosted a handful of NASA spacecraft landings, most recently the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.
“In the United States, there are no dedicated ranges with their core mission, or even a secondary mission, being to support commercial space reentry over land,” Asparouhov said. “Everything that’s done today is either done in the ocean or at a military range, where this is explicitly not their core focus. We find it really exciting to be coordinating with Australia, partially because we see it as relatively emblematic of Western allies coordinating these types of national security missions in aerospace and defense.”
The Koonibba Test Range is located in South Australia, about 350 miles (550 kilometers) northwest of Adelaide. It covers about 9,000 square miles (more than 23,000 square kilometers) of uninhabited land. Southern Launch says the range has hosted several suborbital rocket launches in recent years.
“In-space manufacturing is the next evolution of humanity’s industrial capacity, and elements produced in orbit have the potential to change the course of history. We are excited to be partnering with Varda Space Industries to bring this emerging industry to Australia through the Koonibba Test Range,” Lloyd Damp, CEO of Southern Launch, said in a statement.
Southern Launch said it will support Varda’s plans for “high cadence reentry operations” at the Australia range.