The FAA now requires a re-entry permit to prevent spacecraft from getting stuck there

What happens if you design a spacecraft that can survive reentry, but launch it without the green light from regulators to bring it back down? As we've seen with Varda Space Industries, which shot a capsule into orbit last spring to make things in zero gravity, you may need to parking in a lane until the Federal Aviation Administration paperwork is complete.

In a new communication from April 17 effective immediately, the FAA appears to agree indicating that it wants to avoid repeats of the Varda saga, and it has done so successfully landed his capsule in Utah in February after a delay of about seven months. The company wanted to grow Ritonavir crystals in space, taking advantage of the environment to potentially improve the antiviral drug's effectiveness against HIV.

The Varda Space Industries spacecraft, W-1, successfully landed at the Utah Test and Training Range on February 21, 2024. This is the first time a commercial company has landed a spacecraft on US soil. Credit: Varda Space Industries.

Without citing the incident directly, the agency said it will not allow “reentry vehicles” to be launched without a permit to return. In other words, if a company plans to return its vehicle, it can't send one into space in the first place unless the FAA has preemptively deemed its return plans safe. The agency said it analyzes the impact vehicles could have on public health, property and national security before issuing re-entry permits.

Without prior approval, the FAA says critical systems could fail or the vehicle could run out of propellant or power before regulators and returners have sorted out all their problems. The the agency says it discusses numerous details disclosed by reentry operators themselves, including the weight of the cargo, the amount of hazardous materials present, the “explosive potential of the cargo's materials,” and the planned reentry location.

Varda emphasized earlier this month that it received approval for launch last year and met all regulatory requirements to do so. In a statement to Space NewsFAA Administrator Kelvin Coleman said the agency learned “some lessons” when it approved the company to launch without a re-entry permit.

As spaceflight evolves, reusable vehicles require special attention to reduce collisions with people and property on the ground, the FAA said in its notice. “Unlike typical payloads designed to operate in space, a reentry vehicle has primary components designed to withstand reentry virtually intact and therefore have a virtually guaranteed impact with the ground,” the wrote F.A.A.

[ Related: Yes, a chunk of the space station crashed into a house in Florida ]

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