Varda capsule proves you don't need astronauts for gravity-defying science

Space factory startup celebrates successful re-entry

Almost drowned out by last night's lunar landing, Varda Space Industries celebrated the re-entry and landing of the capsule from its W-1 mission in the Utah desert.

The successful landing was significant for proponents of in-space manufacturing. Materials behave differently when processed in microgravity, and while parabolic flights can briefly achieve similar conditions, the preference is obviously to spend weeks or months on orbit for processing.

Varda capsule lands in Utah (pic: Varda / John Kraus)

Varda capsule lands in Utah Pic: Varda / John Kraus

The eight-month mission duration was twice that initially planned due to problems with the license needed for re-entry. Varda claimed the spacecraft had been designed to last an entire year on orbit if required.

The capsule was then transported to Varda's Los Angeles facilities for analysis. The company said: "The ritonavir vials onboard the spacecraft will be shipped to our collaborators Improved Pharma for post-flight characterization."

A Varda spokesperson told The Register that the mission was for demonstration purposes and not originally designed for a customer. While the capsule can carry up to 40-50 kg of finished materials, "this demonstration mission did not go anywhere near that maximum capacity."

Humans can do great things aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but the costs often outweigh the benefits, which is where Varda's vision of an all-in-one satellite and re-entry vehicle, without the need to keep humans alive, comes in.

The plan is simple. Varda's W-series spacecraft is self-sustaining and does not rely on any other vehicles. Materials that would benefit from processing in microgravity can be processed and then returned to Earth. Rather than needing to land in the ocean, the capsule has been built for a terrestrial landing via parachute, meaning recovery operations are simplified.

While the capsule was developed by Varda, the spacecraft was based on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite bus and launched in 2023 on a SpaceX Falcon 9. A full suite of Rocket Lab components was used, including solar panels, reaction wheels, the engine, and the capsule dispenser itself.

Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab, was delighted with the success of the mission and the part played by his company. He also teased the lessons that could be learned for possible crewed missions, saying: "The success of this re-entry mission will also inform our work on developing a re-entry capsule for Neutron to potentially enable human spaceflight missions."

Varda has ordered four Rocket Lab spacecraft so far for its in-space materials processing missions. By 2026, it expects to get to a monthly re-entry cadence between government and commercial demand.

As well as the in-space manufacturing possibilities, the Varda spokesperson noted "strong interest from NASA and AF [Air Force] for data from the flight, and we expect to deliver that within the next month."

According to Varda's web site: "Our commercial business relies on successful recovery of the capsule, every mission, every time." ®

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