LAS VEGAS — Varda Space Industries has signed an agreement to land spacecraft at an Australian range as it continues work to secure approvals to land its first spacecraft in Utah.
Varda announced Oct. 19 an agreement with Southern Launch, a spaceport operator based in Adelaide, Australia. Under the agreement, Varda’s spacecraft will land at the Koonibba Test Range northwest of Adelaide, a facility covering more than 23,000 square kilometers northwest of Adelaide design to host suborbital launches and spacecraft landings.
Varda is developing a series of spacecraft intended to test in-space manufacturing technologies, with an initial focus on pharmaceuticals. After the experiments are complete in orbit, a capsule will return the materials to Earth.
Southern Launch said Varda will use the range as soon as its second mission, scheduled for mid-2024. “In-space manufacturing is the next evolution of humanity’s industrial capacity,” Lloyd Damp, chief executive of Southern Launch, said in a statement. “We are excited to be partnering with Varda Space Industries to bring this emerging industry to Australia through the Koonibba Test Range.”
Varda launched its first spacecraft, W-Series 1, in June on SpaceX’s Transporter-8 rideshare mission in June. While the experiments on the spacecraft are complete, the company has been unable to bring the capsule back yet as it works to secure approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force, who operates the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) where the capsule will land.
The company had been working to bring the capsule back in early September but was unable to get Air Force approval or an FAA reentry license. “We got very, very close,” said Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda, in an Oct. 20 interview.
There was no single specific issue that held up the reentry, he said. “It was ultimately a coordination problem amongst three different groups that had not worked through this operation before.” He added that there were no safety concerns with Varda’s spacecraft or its ability to meet requirements for an FAA license.
An additional challenge is that Varda is the first company to seek an FAA reentry license through a new set of regulations called Part 450. Those regulations are intended to streamline the process but, on the launch side, have been criticized by companies for being difficult. Asparouhov declined to speculate if the company would have been able to secure a license by now under older FAA regulations, “but I feel confident that if there had been 10 previous Part 450 reentry operations, it would have gone much more smoothly.”
The spacecraft, designed for a one-year lifetime, remains in good health in orbit as Varda works on securing approvals for the capsule to land. “But any day that you’re in space, you’re just increasing the risk on the vehicle. And so obviously our preference would be bringing this back as soon as possible.”
He said the company is making progress on getting approvals for a landing at UTTR, including a recent technical interchange meeting with range officials to discuss potential landing opportunities, but did not mention any specific dates being considered.
Those issues, he said, accelerated planning to find other ranges for landing future missions, with some ranges, like the Australian one, reaching out to Varda. The company expects to eventually operate from three to four ranges worldwide.
Varda will need to work with the Australian government to secure approvals for landing at Koonibba Test Range and will also still need an FAA Part 450 license. Securing range approvals should be “a bit simpler” in Australia since there are fewer competing uses of that range, Asparouhov said.