The co-founder of California-based startup Varda Space Industries says his company’s first space mission — a small lab growing crystals of the drug ritonavir in orbit — is on track to end in the coming weeks with a first-of-its-kind re-entry and landing in Utah.
Varda’s spacecraft launched on June 12 as part of a rideshare mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, after completing several weeks of checkout before beginning a 27-hour experiment to create a drugs last week. When ground controllers gave the go-ahead, the mini-lab began growing crystals of ritonavir, a drug commonly used to treat HIV.
The 27-hour run of the experiment was completed on June 30, and data downlinked from the spacecraft showed that all was well.
“For the first time, orbital drug processing is happening outside of a government-run space station,” Varda tweeted. “This is our first step in commercializing microgravity and building a LEO (Low Earth Orbit) industrial park.”
“The space drugs are done cooking baby!” Delian Asparouhov tweetedco-founder of Varda.
Asparouhov, who founded Varda in 2020 with former SpaceX engineer Will Bruey and scientist Daniel Marshall, said Friday that he was pleased with the progress of the demonstration mission.
“One of the critical parts of pharmaceutical processing is being able to maintain appropriate temperature ranges for long periods of time,” Asparouhov told Ars. “It’s exactly what we expected, which is great to see.”
Varda plans a series of satellite missions. The spacecraft currently in orbit is the first of Varda’s Winnebago series, designed to bring pharmaceutical research specimens back to Earth for laboratory analysis and eventual commercial exploitation.
The roughly 660-pound (300-kilogram) satellite was built in partnership with Rocket Lab, which supplied a solar-powered carrier module, or bus, that provides electricity, communications, propulsion, and attitude control. Varda built a nearly 3-foot-diameter (1-meter) re-entry capsule attached to the side of Rocket Lab’s satellite platform.
Over the next few weeks, Rocket Lab’s ground team will uplink a command to fire the spacecraft’s thrusters for a braking maneuver to drop the satellite from orbit, setting it on a course to fall back down. in the atmosphere and target the US landing at the Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City.
Varda’s nearly 200-pound re-entry capsule will separate from its carrier craft before re-entering. An ablative carbon-based heat shield material developed by NASA will protect the capsule from scorching hot temperatures as it passes through the atmosphere, en route to the desert landing zone from the north. Then, if all goes according to plan, the re-entry vehicle will deploy a 6.2-foot-diameter (2.1-meter) main parachute to slow it down for a relatively gentle landing.
FAA license pending
Varda is currently working with Rocket Lab, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the military to schedule a return mission to Earth. The landing window opens on July 17, but the actual return date is likely to move later this month, he said.
“Now, we are more in the phase of settling everything between the satellite that performs the deorbit burn, as well as the regulatory partners that help control the airspace, to the military resources that can actually help us. retrieval on the range,” said Asparouhov in an interview.
Varda and its partners completed a rehearsal for the recovery in Utah in early June, about a week before the mission’s launch.