Varda Space postpones orbital factory re-entry while awaiting green light from Air Force and FAA

The US Air Force rejected a recent request from Varda Space Industries to land its capsule at a Utah training area, pushing back the startup’s plans to show off the fruits of its manufacturing in space, it has been learned TechCrunch. The company is also still awaiting a re-entry license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, a USAF spokesperson said.

Varda had originally planned to bring back a capsule containing crystals of ritonavir, a drug used to treat HIV, in mid-July. After announcing it had been delayed, the company was looking at September 5 and 7, a source told TechCrunch. This information was confirmed by the USAF.

The company declined to comment, but posted on that “the spacecraft is healthy in all systems” and that they continue to work with regulators to return the capsule to Earth. They added that the spacecraft can survive up to a year in orbit.

” September. 5 and 7 were their primary targets,” a USAF spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The request to use the Utah Test and Training Range for the landing location has not been granted at this time due to the overall safety, risk and environmental analysis. ‘impact. In a separate process, the FAA did not grant a reentry license. All organizations continue to work to explore recovery options.

The spokesperson further said that Varda is “working on presenting alternative plans” but would not elaborate further on whether this involved finding another landing site. An FAA spokesperson did not respond to TechCrunch’s request for information on the re-entry license as of publication time. On the FAA website, only one commercial space re-entry license is listed, for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

A draft environmental assessment of Varda’s re-entry mission, prepared by the FAA in March, indicates that Varda initially considered six areas for the capsule’s landing: the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR); White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico; Fallon Range Training Complex in Nevada; Nevada Test and Training Range; Barry M. Goldwater Channel in Arizona; and the Oregon Naval Weapons Systems Training Center, Boardman.

Only UTTR met all of Varda’s six-point site selection criteria, including the ability to accommodate the entire proposed 500-square-mile landing zone. UTTR has previously hosted other capsule recovery missions, including NASA’s Genesis sample return mission in 2004 and the Stardust comet sampling mission in 2006.

But despite these precedents, the pace of reintegration proposed by Varda – monthly by 2026 – is completely new. This may be one reason why re-entry clearances take so long; Indeed, the Air Force spokesperson said the process was intended to “set the right precedents” for future commercial reentry activities.

“Our goal at the Utah Test and Training Range remains to work with customers requesting re-entry missions in a safe, secure and sustainable manner, upon which Varda (and potentially its future partners) can model their investments, engagement and activities,” the spokesperson said. . “We also emphasize that this is a whole-of-government and interagency process aimed at establishing good precedents for future activities such as these. »

Varda is using Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft for this mission and at least three other subsequent missions. Varda’s 120-kilogram manufacturing capsule sits atop the Photon, which provides the power, data and attitude control needed for the mission. Upon reentry, Rocket Lab’s spacecraft will burn up in the atmosphere, while Varda’s capsule continues on its way, releases its parachutes, and lands on Earth.


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