Rocket Lab Readies In-Space Manufacturing Capsule Return for Varda Space Industries

Rocket Lab USA, Inc. (Nasdaq: RKLB), a prominent player in launch and space systems, revealed today that it has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the reentry of Varda Space Industries’ in-space manufacturing capsule. This milestone marks the first issuance of a Part 450 reentry license by the FAA and signifies the initial collaboration between the Department of Defense and a commercial space company to facilitate the reentry of such a mission on a government-owned range. The designated landing site for Varda’s capsule, named Winnebago-1, is the Utah Desert.

Rocket Lab is set to initiate a sequence of intricate in-space maneuvers and de-orbit burns on the satellite it constructed and operates, currently hosting Varda’s capsule in orbit. The reentry process is scheduled to take place in the coming days and will involve a series of carefully planned maneuvers using Rocket Lab’s Curie engine.

Key Events in the Reentry Process:

  • Evening of February 18, PT: The initial burn of the Curie engine to decelerate the spacecraft, reduce its perigee, and position Winnebago-1 in its initial staging orbit with a target orbit of 300km x 500km.
  • Afternoon of February 20, PT: A second engine burn will be conducted to elevate the spacecraft’s apogee, the farthest point from Earth, and position Winnebago-1 in its second staging orbit with a target orbit of 300km x 900km.
  • Afternoon of February 21, PT: The spacecraft will undergo its third and fourth final engine burns to execute the de-orbit and establish Winnebago-1 on its atmospheric reentry trajectory.

Having spent over eight months in space, Rocket Lab’s 300kg-class spacecraft has provided essential services, including power, communications, ground control, and attitude control, enabling Varda’s capsule to cultivate Ritonavir crystals, a vital antiviral medication for HIV and hepatitis C.

Despite the adjustment of the initial planned reentry date from late 2023, Rocket Lab’s spacecraft has exceeded its intended orbital lifespan, operating seamlessly. This achievement underscores the spacecraft’s robust design, flight-proven hardware and subsystems, and the expertise of the mission operators. The spacecraft integrates components and software designed and manufactured by Rocket Lab, covering various aspects such as star trackers, propulsion systems, reaction wheels, solar panels, flight software, radios, composite structures and tanks, and separation systems.

This mission marks the first of four, utilizing identical Rocket Lab spacecraft to support Varda’s in-space manufacturing. The second spacecraft has completed assembly, integration, and testing at Rocket Lab’s spacecraft production facility in Long Beach, California, and is slated for launch in the coming months.

For real-time updates throughout the reentry process, interested parties are encouraged to follow Rocket Lab and Varda on X.

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