Varda drug spacecraft gets FAA approval to return

Varda’s first manufacturing satellite and reentry vehicle attached to a Rocket Lab Photon bus.

Rocket Lab

Space startup Varda received long-awaited approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to bring its first spacecraft back to earth after a stint manufacturing drugs in space.

Varda’s small W-Series 1 capsule, or W-1, has been stuck in orbit since it launched eight months ago. The company has awaited regulatory authorization to make a landing attempt in Utah, at the Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range. The FAA confirmed on Wednesday it had issued the license to Varda.

The FAA’s approval means Varda will try to land the W-1 mission on Feb. 21.

“We are incredibly proud to have this opportunity with our government partners, and appreciate their dedication to safe innovation in the United States,” Varda said in a statement.

The W-1 mission is a demonstration of the company’s automated in-space manufacturing process. Last year, Varda announced the W-1 mission successfully produced the drug Ritonavir.

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While manufacturing in space is not a novel concept, Varda wants to take the process to the next level – to launch and return space-made products more quickly. The start-up plans to manufacture materials that are more lucrative when made in orbit, such as fiber optic cables, pharmaceuticals, or semiconductors, due to advantages from manufacturing in a weightless environment.

Varda’s system uses Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft as the backbone of its operation. The start-up adds its manufacturing module, along with a heatshield-protected capsule to survive the intense reentry process through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The company previously said it expects to return a few kilograms of manufactured material on the W-1 mission.

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