Varda Space Industries’ first pharmaceutical manufacturing satellite and reentry vehicle are currently attached to a Rocket Lab Photon bus, but the company has encountered regulatory hurdles that prevent the satellite from coming back down to Earth.
Last month, a Senate hearing on space regulations shed light on the challenges faced by authorities in regulating the space industry. The hearing emphasized the need to balance safety with innovative technologies in an evolving sector. Varda’s co-founder Delian Asparouhov echoed these sentiments, explaining that there have been learning curves for all parties involved in understanding how to assess this type of activity.
Varda’s mission, launched in June, aimed to test the functionality of the spacecraft, manufacture a drug in microgravity, and recover the capsule after landing. Although the launch and manufacturing process were successful, Varda has not yet received the necessary license for capsule reentry.
For the past three months, Varda’s W-Series 1 satellite has remained in space while the company works with the Federal Aviation Administration’s space office (AST) and the Air Force to resolve the reentry issue. Varda has been in communication with AST since its early days, but the reentry license was not issued in time for the mission launch. The challenge lies in coordinating the license with the range and considering the shifting upper atmosphere conditions.
Varda and regulators are engaged in continuous negotiations and communication to establish a new reentry target. The process involves agreements between the Air Force and AST, licensing review, analysis of impact on airline routes, and reentry maneuver preparations.
While Varda has identified the Koonibba Test Range in Australia as a potential landing site for future missions, the current mission’s realistic landing spot remains the range in Utah. The company continues its efforts to align regulatory requirements and ensure a safe return of the capsule.
In the broader space industry, other developments include Starlink achieving breakeven cash flow, Virgin Galactic completing its fifth commercial spaceflight, and Blue Origin showcasing its moon lander design. TrustPoint and Impulse have partnered for satellite missions, and former Blue Origin leaders have announced a moon startup called Interlune. The Netherlands has also signed the Artemis Accords, bringing the total number of participating countries to 31.
These industry maneuvers and developments highlight the ongoing progress and challenges in the rapidly evolving space sector.