Varda capsule
A Varda Space Industries capsule after landing at the Utah Test and Training Range Feb. 21. Credit: Varda Space Industries

WASHINGTON — A Varda Space Industries capsule landed in the Utah desert Feb. 21 as part of the company’s efforts to demonstrate space manufacturing technologies.

In a statement, Varda said that the capsule from its W-Series 1 mission landed at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) west of Salt Lake City at 4:40 p.m. Eastern. An image released by the company showed the capsule lying intact on the desert floor, although the company did not release other details about the status of the spacecraft.

The Varda-developed capsule, about 90 centimeters in diameter and weighing less than 90 kilograms, was part of a Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft launched in June 2023 on SpaceX’s Transporter-8 rideshare mission. Varda used the spacecraft to test space manufacturing technologies, producing crystals of a drug called ritonavir that would be returned to Earth in the capsule.

Varda had planned to return the capsule as soon as mid-July, but encountered delays securing a commercial reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration and approvals from the U.S. Air Force, which operates UTTR, to land the capsule there. The company said in October it had gotten close to getting those approvals in September but fell short.

The company received an FAA reentry license Feb. 14 and was cleared to perform a landing at UTTR on Feb. 21. The landing site was an ellipse 45 by 35 kilometers within the southern part of UTTR and the neighboring Dugway Proving Ground, according to environmental documents. Varda did not disclose the exact location of the capsule landing.

The reentry required a series of maneuvers by the main spacecraft to go from a circular to an elliptical orbit, which were handled by Rocket Lab. The spacecraft released the capsule just before reentry and itself reentered, burning up.

“This mission was a phenomenal feat and impressive display of teamwork between the Rocket Lab and Varda teams to develop a unique and highly capable spacecraft, successfully demonstrate in-space manufacturing and bring back the capsule and finished pharmaceutical product – all on the first attempt,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a statement.

Varda said it will ship the capsule back to its California headquarters for analysis, while providing the ritonavir samples on board to a pharmaceutical company, Improved Pharma, for analysis. Varda said it will also share data from the reentry itself with NASA and the Air Force under a contract with those agencies.

The company is preparing for a second mission, also using a Rocket Lab spacecraft, that will launch this summer. Varda announced in October an agreement with an Australian company, Southern Launch, to land the capsule at the Koonibba Test Range in South Australia. Accessing that range, Varda said when it announced the agreement, should be easier than UTTR because there are fewer competing users.

Rocket Lab’s Beck said his company had other interests in the successful reentry and landing beyond supporting Varda’s mission, which involved potential future human spaceflight applications of its Neutron rocket currently under development. “The success of this reentry mission will also inform our work on developing a reentry capsule for Neutron to potentially enable human spaceflight missions.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...