Startup Wants to Land Space Drugs Factory in Australia After US Denies Reentry

Startup Wants to Land Space Drugs Factory in Australia After US Denies Reentry

After struggling to land its first in-space manufacturing capsule in the U.S., Varda Space is now looking down under for future batches of space drugs to reenter through Earth’s atmosphere.

California-based Varda Space Industries announced an agreement with Southern Launch, an end-to-end launch service provider based in Australia, to land a future mission at the company’s Kooniba Test Range in the far west of South Australia. Varda’s upcoming mission could launch as early as mid 2024, according to the company.


Meanwhile, Varda’s first in-space manufacturing capsule, which launched in June, is still stuck in orbit after the company was denied reentry to Earth. The U.S. Air Force denied a request from Varda Space Industries to land its capsule at a Utah training area, while the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not grant the company permission to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, leaving its first test mission stranded in space.

The capsule was scheduled to land at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) in September, but it is designed to last for up to a year in orbit. The startup continues to confirm the spacecraft’s health and is working with UTTR for a landing site to return its capsule to Earth.

The 264-pound (120-kilogram) capsule is designed to manufacture products in a microgravity environment (to avoid gravity-induced defects) and transport them back to Earth. For its first mission, the first drug-manufacturing experiment succeeded in growing crystals of the drug ritonavir, which is used for the treatment of HIV, in orbit. Protein crystals made in space form larger and more perfect crystals than those created on Earth, according to NASA.

Although the mission succeeded in producing the crystals in space, it missed a crucial part of in-space manufacturing: actually bringing the products back to Earth. A spokesperson from the FAA told TechCrunch at the time that the company’s request was not granted “due to the overall safety, risk and impact analysis.”

Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s president and co-founder, suggested to the media that the issue stemmed from a coordination lapse among parties involved in the company’s first mission. “If you look at some of the initial challenges with our first mission, it ultimately just comes down to the fact that Varda, FAA, and UTTR have never attempted something like this,” Asparouhov told Ars Technica. “It’s pretty complicated to align all these organizations that have a variety of different regulatory approvals and safety officers.”

The Koonibba test range stretches across 23,000 square kilometres of uninhabited land where the in-space manufacturing capsules can reenter. It seems that targeting a different continent altogether might be easier than navigating regulatory frameworks within the United States.

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