Commercial Space

Watch the Varda Capsule’s Entire Fiery Atmospheric Re-Entry

Here’s a front row seat on what it would be like to return to Earth inside a space capsule. Varda Space Industries’ small W-1 spacecraft successfully landed at the Utah Test and Training Range on February 21, 2024.  A camera installed inside the cozy 90 cm- (3 ft)-wide capsule captured the entire stunning reentry sequence, from separation from the satellite bus in low Earth orbit (LEO) to the fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere, to parachute deploy, to the bouncy landing.

At the end of this 5-minute video, you’ll see a pair legs with mud-caked shoes approach to gather the parachute and retrieve the capsule. Not only is there video, but sound as well. And the sounds of reentry and landing are what grabs you!  

There’s a also full 27-minute unedited raw footage from separation to touchdown is also available, below.

On X, Varda said reentry speeds reached Mach 25.

W-1 was part of a Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft launched in June 2023 on SpaceX’s Transporter-8 rideshare mission (NASA’s CAPSTONE mission also launched on this flight.). Varda used the spacecraft to test their in-space manufacturing technologies. Inside the capsule, the company was able to produce crystals of a drug called ritonavir, an antiviral drug grown in the microgravity LEO environment that can be used to treat HIV and hepatitis C.  The company’s goal is to develop the infrastructure to make LEO more accessible to commercial industries.  

“We manufacture pharmaceuticals in space,” said Varda CEO Will Bruey in an interview on Marketplace. “Removing gravity allows us to make medicines you otherwise couldn’t on Earth. Gravity is kind of like a parameter. If you put a temperature knob on an oven, you create a whole world of new recipes and new food you can create. Similarly, if you can change gravity, you can also change the chemical process for drug formulations.”

W-1 spent eight months integrated with a Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft (the upper stage of the Electron rocket) that provided the capsule with power, propulsion, and navigation.

Varda Space’s off-Earth manufacturing capsule is evaluated by recovery personnel as it sits on the desert floor of the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) on Feb. 21, 2024. Credit: Varda Space/John Kraus

“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,” said Rocketlab CEO Peter Beck in a company press release. “The success of this reentry mission will also inform our work on developing a reentry capsule for Neutron to potentially enable human spaceflight missions.”

Screenshot from the Varda W-1 capsule’s reentry to Earth.

Varda transported the capsule to its California headquarters for a complete check-out, and sent 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.

Varda Capsule Reentry – Full Video from LEO to Earth
Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Nancy_A and and Instagram at and https://www.instagram.com/nancyatkinson_ut/

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