Varda Space Industries : Medicine in Microgravity

Rachel Carr
Rachel Carr - Junior Editor

In a galactic ocean of possibilities, Varda Space Industries is revolutionising pharmaceutical production by launching mini factories into low orbit, heralding a new era which is out of this world.

MEDICINE IN MICROGRAVITY

Space exploration offers a unique environment for R&D due to its higher radiation levels, microgravity, and near-vacuum state. These conditions enable the creation of new manufacturing methods or materials that are impossible to produce on Earth. 

Varda Space Industries (Varda) has noted the unique conditions space offers and successfully manufactured pharmaceuticals there. The positive results could attract other drug manufacturers to start using space factories, which could ultimately reduce the cost of life-saving drugs. 

Varda was co-founded in 2021 by Will Bruey, a former avionics engineer at SpaceX, and Delian Asparouhov of Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. The Californian start-up is focused on designing and constructing the necessary infrastructure to make low Earth orbit (LEO) more accessible to various industries. This includes the use of in-orbit production equipment and dependable, cost-effective re-entry capsules. 

Varda’s space factory project was able to progress when the company signed two deals with NASA and secured USD$60 million in funding from the US Air Force, which was matched by private funds. 

The US Air Force has since utilised Varda’s re-entry capsules as platforms for hypersonic flight testing, evaluating the performance of components and materials at hypersonic speeds. At the same time, NASA was responsible for the capsule’s heat shield. 

Manufacturing drugs in space has been technically feasible for some time, and astronauts have studied protein crystallisation for several decades. The process was initially researched on SkyLab in the 1970s and later on the International Space Station (ISS) when the ISS was first launched into orbit at the turn of the millennium. 

One small step for Varda is a giant leap for the manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries.

AN ALL-IN-ONE AUTONOMOUS OPTION

Varda’s partnership with Rocket Lab USA to create four Photon spacecraft, and involvement with NASA’s Ames Research Center to develop the heat shield material, Conformal Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (C-PICA), has opened opportunities for other space start-ups in the manufacturing field. 

Varda is striving to establish itself as a notable player in the emerging in-space manufacturing sector and has made significant progress, paving the way for other entrants.   

Furthermore, NASA is sharing its space expertise and advanced materials with emerging companies to develop innovative manufacturing methods that will benefit humanity. 

W-1 in orbit docked to Satellite Bus

The progress has been bolstered by Varda’s W-1 capsule from its W-Series, named after the Winnebago Motorhomes brand, following the completion of a drug manufacturing experiment less than three weeks after its SpaceX launch in June 2023. 

The company’s approach involves using a three-piece vehicle, which includes a spacecraft, a manufacturing module, and a heat shield protective capsule for safe re-entry into the atmosphere, completing the entire logistics chain. 

The W-Series is a fleet of unique commercial satellite and re-entry vehicles explicitly designed for retrieving materials from space. Unlike other systems, it is not intended for human use, which means that it doesn’t require costly life support systems and other amenities needed to sustain astronauts. 

Despite its success so far, Varda aims to make its processes more accessible and cost-effective. The W-Series is wholly independent of other space stations and capable of returning materials to Earth for post-processing, and due to frequent flights, the affordable re-entry vehicle also functions as a research platform. 

Moreover, the W-Series is designed for efficient manufacturing and frequent launches and landings, making it the first mass-produced re-entry vehicle and orbital production facility in human history. 

THE SPACE PIONEERING, DRUG-COOKING WINNEBAGO

The space environment provides a unique opportunity that cannot be replicated on Earth – microgravity.  

Varda has developed a first-of-its-kind, cost-effective, comprehensive system that enables the impact of gravity on materials to be tested. This allows industries to leverage the benefits of space and rapidly test and generate data to advance strategic capabilities. 

Processing materials in near-weightless conditions offers several advantages. This is because no convectional or sedimentational forces exist in the vacuum of space, and the absence of gravitational stresses results in the formation of flawless structures. These effects are usually locked into the material through crystallisation.  

When an experiment is conducted in microgravity, it can significantly change the way buoyancy, natural convection, sedimentation, and phase separation occur. 

Varda also specialises in constructing top-of-the-line processing equipment to achieve the desired outcomes, even in harsh conditions. Due to the specific limitations of working in the vacuum and microgravity of space, it is impossible to purchase materials processing equipment from a store to use in this environment.  

When the process was concluded, the W-1 capsule landed in Utah on 21st February carrying the metastable Form III of ritonavir, an antiviral drug used to treat HIV and hepatitis C.  

The cargo onboard contained all the essential materials required to grow ritonavir crystals. The capsule’s contents were chosen wisely, as pharmaceutical products are high-value and have the potential to kick-start the manufacturing industry beyond Earth. 

Free-flying orbital production satellites with reentry capability

BACK DOWN TO EARTH

Varda has become the third company to successfully recover an intact spacecraft from orbit. The other two companies that have achieved this feat are aerospace giant SpaceX with its Dragon vehicles and Boeing with its Starliner capsule. This is a significant achievement as it is the first time that orbital drug processing has occurred outside a government-run space station.   

The conical capsule landed after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at more than 25 times the speed of sound. It generated a stunning display of sparks, which was captured in a video and shared on Varda’s YouTube channel. 

The data collected during the mission provides crucial insights into the effects of spaceflight and re-entry on the pharmaceutical process. This includes vibration, acceleration, radiation, and temperature. 

Upon returning to Earth, the ritonavir crystals were sent to Improved Pharma, an Indiana-based pharmaceutical company, for evaluation. 

In a post on social media platform X, Varda co-Founder Asparouhov announced that “them space drugs cooked real good” following official analyses of the space-processed ritonavir. 

The next Varda mission is to encourage and facilitate the consideration of space-processed pharmaceuticals. So far, the start-up has secured USD$90 million in venture capital (VC) to carry out a series of missions in subsequent years. 

Moreover, NASA, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and Varda are collaborating to conduct additional flight tests of C-PICA, which will further develop the re-entry technology, making it relevant for future missions to Mars. 

Indeed, the burgeoning orbital industrial revolution is well underway and ready for take-off.

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