W-1 re-entry with a parachute, a rendering. Credits: Varda Space.

Winnebago-1 Has Landed With A Special Payload Made In Space

Varda Space’s capsule Winnebago-1 landed in the Utah desert after spending more than eight months in orbit due to an FAA license issuing delay

The capsule of Winnebago-1 (W-1), the first in-space manufacturing standalone facility by Varda Space, landed at the military’s Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) site on February 21, 2024.

The re-entry procedure started on February 19 at 05:58, when the Curie engine of the spacecraft, a modified Rocket Lab Proton, re-ignited for an initial burn to lower the perigee. A second burn followed to raise the apogee and a third to deorbit the vehicle, operated by Rocket Lab.

Once it reached the required re-entry trajectory, the capsule detached, and the Curie engine was fired a fourth time to send the Proton bus into the atmosphere and be destroyed by the attrition with the air

The 90-kilogram capsule re-entered the atmosphere at hypersonic speed, slowed down by atmospheric drag until its parachute deployed. The capsule touched the Utah desert surface at 21: 40 UTC, delivering back the first made-in-space crystals of the Ritonavir drug.


Eight months for the re-entry license

Launched on June 12, 2023, as a payload of the SpaceX Transporter-8 mission, Winnebago-1 accomplished its first mission objective to grow crystals of Ritonavir after eighteen days in orbit.

Since then, the re-entry capsule has been waiting in orbit to get the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearance to land at the UTTR site, managed by the US Air Force (USAF). The first narrow landing window opened in September, but a coordination problem between the FAA, the USAF, and Varda didn’t allow it to exploit it.

The joint of having the UTTR site free from military activities, the sky over UTAH clear from air traffic, and W-1 ready for re-entry was a complicated job. Finally, the clearance arrived on February 14, 2024, when the FAA granted the first Part 450 re-entry license to a commercial company, Varda Space, and its Winnebago-1 capsule.

“If you look at some of the initial challenges with our first mission, it ultimately just comes down to the fact that Varda, FAA, and UTTR have never attempted something like this. It’s pretty complicated to align all these organizations that have a variety of different regulatory approvals and safety officers.”

— Delian Asparouhov, President & Co-Founder, Varda Space
Rendering of W-1 in orbit docked to Satellite Bus, a Rocket Lab modified Proton. Credits: Varda Space.
Rendering of W-1 in orbit docked to Satellite Bus, a Rocket Lab modified Proton. Credits: Varda Space

A new landing site

To avoid the same issue from happening again for future missions, Varda got an agreement with Southern Launch, an Australian spaceport operator, to land its capsules at the Koonibba Test Range, northwest of Adelaide.

With less air traffic and the absence of priority military missions, the engagement of the new landing site will facilitate the issuance of FAA approvals for re-entry.

Koonibba Test Range site. Credits: Southern Launch.
Koonibba Test Range site. Credits: Southern Launch

The company aims to land the capsule at the Koonibba Test Range starting from its second mission, Winnebago-2 (W-2).


Varda & Rocket Lab, a promising collaboration for in-space manufacturing

Varda ordered four Photon spacecraft to Rocket Lab in 2022 to integrate its in-space manufacturing facility and the hypersonic re-entry capsule for the first four missions.

The vehicle provides power, communications, propulsion, and attitude control, while Rocket Lab takes care of all in-space vehicle operations. This solution allows Varda to focus on in-space manufacturing and capsule recovery.

Winnebago-1 spacecraft assembled at Rocket Lab spacecraft production facility. Credits: Rocket Lab / Varda Space Industries.
Winnebago-1 spacecraft assembled at Rocket Lab spacecraft production facility. Credits: Rocket Lab/Varda Space

“Rocket Lab’s Photon bus is a great compliment to Varda’s in-space manufacturing and hypersonic re-entry logistics service. Rocket Lab shares Varda’s vision to build an in-space economy to improve life on Earth and beyond.”

— Will Bruey, CEO, Varda Space

Varda’s next mission, W-2, was to be launched in November 2023 on the SpaceX Transporter-9 mission but has been delayed due to issues with W-1 re-entry. Currently, the company plans to launch it as soon as mid-2024.


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Giancarlo Albertinazzi

Giancarlo Albertinazzi

Space Ambassador, Terranaut, Future Spacepolitan, Writer of Becoming Spacepolitans Blog

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