SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Varda capsule to land in Utah desert in historic first for commercial space programs

Feb 21, 2024, 3:15 PM | Updated: 5:15 pm

Varda capsule reentry drawing...

Reding of Varda’s W-series 1 capsule during planned reentry; the capsule is expected to land in the Utah desert on Wednesday. (Varda Space Industries)

(Varda Space Industries)

DUGWAY — A small capsule is set to touchdown in Utah’s west desert on Wednesday, bringing with it important data collected in space by a California-based company.

Varda Space Industries was approved for the nation’s first-ever Part 450 reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration last week, a process intended to streamline commercial space activity.

Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda Space Industries, went to West High School in Salt Lake City and is excited to bring this first landing to a place where he still has family ties.

“It felt like it was the perfect place to land and, obviously, it was great for me to have this hometown connection to our landing spot,” he said.

SpaceX transporter launch

SpaceX Transporter-8 rideshare mission in June 2023 carries Varda’s W-Series 1 capsule into orbit. (Varda Space Industries)

Varda’s W-Series 1 capsule was taken into orbit by a SpaceX Transporter-8 rideshare mission in June 2023 to test the production of chemical compounds in microgravity. The lack of gravity allows Varda to formulate compounds that traditional manufacturing processes cannot, with applications for pharmaceuticals and materials like fiber optics.

“Gravity is one of the four fundamental forces of physics,” Asparouhov explained, “and removing it from a chemical system really changes how that system operates.”

He compares the difference to a candle lit on the ground versus in space. With gravity, you can feel the hot air rising above the flame, but the effect is different in space, radiating from the candle wick.

“In zero gravity, things are very calm and stable, in terms of how they move even when you’re heating them up,” he said. “Being able to make more precise chemicals is very valuable.”

The Part 450 rule for reentry licensing was issued in September 2020 as part of the FAA’s efforts to streamline and increase flexibility in commercial space launches and reentry regulations.

The company was hoping to land the pod within the first few months after launch, according to Asparouhov, but “unexpected” barriers to licensing arose. The FAA granted the reentry approval on Feb. 14.

“Ultimately, I think it just comes down to the fact that this really was the first time in U.S. history that this type of operation was being conducted by a commercial company,” Asparouhov said.

Landing attempt

If given the green light Wednesday, the company’s small pod attached to a Rocket Lab-produced spacecraft, will descend toward an elliptical landing site 320,000 acres at the Utah Test and Training Range and neighboring Dugway Proving Ground west of Salt Lake City.

Varda landing zone

The projected landing area for Varda’s W-Series 1 capsule, is scheduled to land at the Utah Test and Training Range on Wednesday, February 21, 2024. (FAA)

The site had special requirements, according to the FAA. It must accommodate a 500-square-mile landing area, with restricted airspace to provide separation from commercial and civilian air traffic, and “a flat recovery area, free from hills or terrain features that would prevent recovery operations or would damage the capsule by imparting a tumbling action at touchdown.”

With such narrow specifications, the Utah sight stood out as the best candidate.

The capsule itself is a small aluminum cone about 3 feet in diameter, 2.5 feet tall, and weighing less than 200 pounds. A NASA-developed heat shield material coats the outside to protect the product from heat damage on reentry.

At around 60 miles from the center of the proposed landing area, the capsule is expected to be at an altitude of 148,000 ft above sea level, traveling at Mach 10.5 or around 8,000 miles per hour.

The pod slows and descends, triggering an explosion to deploy an initial parachute when it reaches an altitude of 16,400 feet. That parachute, expected to be open for 8 seconds, will pull the main chute from the pod before two small time-delayed explosives cut the line between the first and main chute.

Varda's parachute plan

This drawing shows Varda’s W-Series 1 capsule plan to deploy parachutes ahead of touchdown in Utah’s west desert on Wednesday, February 21, 2024. (FAA)

Once the pod touches down safely, Varda will send helicopters to pick it up, flying it back to the control center in a hammock-like sling underneath the aircraft.

Touchdown is expected at 2:40 p.m. MST.

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Varda capsule to land in Utah desert in historic first for commercial space programs