The co-founder of California-based startup Varda Space Industries says his company’s first space mission — a miniature lab that has grown crystals of the drug ritonavir in orbit — is on track to end in the coming weeks with a scoop. friendly return and landing in Utah.
Varda’s spacecraft launched on June 12 as part of a rideshare mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, then completed several weeks of checkouts before embarking on a 27-hour drug manufacturing experiment last week. When ground controllers gave the green light, the minilab began growing crystals of ritonavir, a drug commonly used to treat HIV.
The experiment’s 27-hour run was completed on June 30, and downlink data from the spacecraft showed that all was well.
“For the first time ever, orbital drug processing took place outside of a government-operated space station,” Varda tweeted. “This is our first step in commercializing microgravity and building an industrial park in LEO (Low Earth Orbit).”
“Space Drugs Finish Cooking Baby!” tweeted Delian Asparouhovco-founder of Varda.
Asparouhov, who founded Varda in 2020 with former SpaceX engineer Will Bruey and scientist Daniel Marshall, said Friday he is excited about the progress of the demonstration mission.
“One of the critical parts of pharmaceutical processing is being able to maintain appropriate temperature ranges for extended periods of time,” Asparouhov told Ars. “It was exactly what we expected, which is really great to see.”
Varda plans a series of satellite missions. The spacecraft currently orbiting Earth is the first of Varda’s Winnebago series, designed to return research pharmaceutical specimens to Earth for laboratory analysis and eventually commercial exploitation.
The approximately 600-pound satellite was built in partnership with Rocket Lab, which provided a solar-powered carrier module, or bus, that provided electricity, communications, propulsion and attitude control. Varda built a reentry capsule nearly three feet in diameter mounted on the side of Rocket Lab’s satellite platform.
Sometime in the next few weeks, the Rocket Lab ground team will uplink a command to fire the spacecraft’s thrusters for a braking maneuver to drop the satellite out of orbit, putting it on course to dive back into the atmosphere and aiming a landing at the US. military Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City.
Varda’s nearly 200-pound reentry pod will detach from its carrier before returning. An ablative carbon-based heat shield material developed by NASA will protect the capsule from scorching hot temperatures as it blasts through the atmosphere and approaches the desert landing zone from the north. If all goes according to plan, the reentry vehicle will deploy a 2.1-meter (6.2-foot) diameter main parachute to slow its speed for a relatively soft landing.
FAA license pending
Varda is now working with Rocket Lab, the Federal Aviation Administration and the military to plan the mission’s return to Earth. The landing window will open on July 17, but the actual return date will likely move to later this month, he said.
“Now we’re more in the phase of getting it all sorted out between the satellite that’s doing the deorbit burn, as well as the regulatory partners that help with airspace control, all the way down to the military assets that will help us with the actual retrieval at the reach,” Asparouhov said in an interview.
Varda and his partners completed a rehearsal for the recovery in Utah in early June, about a week before the mission’s launch.