World's first drug-making factory in space up and running

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft lifts off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for the Axiom Space Mission 2 (Ax-2) on May 21, 2023 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Paul Hennesy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

SpaceX launched dozens of spacecraft Monday in a ridesharing mission, including the first factory in space to manufacture pharmaceuticals. 

Varda Space Industries purchased four custom-made Photon spacecraft from Rocket Lab to support its goals of in-space manufacturing. The first spacecraft launched Monday from California and is successfully operating in orbit, according to a news release from Rocket Lab.

The satellite includes the Photon spacecraft and Varda's re-entry capsule and was among 72 launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and deployed in orbit. Photon provides power, communication and propulsion for Varda's 2-pound (120 kg) capsule, where a pharmaceutical experiment will happen in orbit.

"We have ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL," Varda tweeted about two hours after the satellite was in orbit. "The world's first space factory's solar panels have found the sun and it's beginning to de-tumble."

Once Varda's mission is done, Rocket Lab's spacecraft will place the capsule, with the pharmaceuticals on board, and put it on a trajectory to return to Earth. The capsule must then survive re-entering Earth's atmosphere at speeds up to Mach 25 or about 19,000 mph and land in Utah using parachutes.


An employee looks at the Rocket Lab Photon spacecraft built for Varda Space Industries in the cleanroom. (Image: Rocket Lab)

There is increasing interest in developing low-Earth orbit as a manufacturing and test-bed economy.  

Earlier this year, Varda was awarded a $60-million Air Force contract to use the company's hypersonic vehicle as a test bed when it returns from microgravity. 

Varda's goal is to use the microgravity environment and increasing access to space to develop drugs that don't have feasible formulations on Earth. The first flight will test the crystallization process of ritonavir, a medicine that can be used to treat HIV/AIDs when combined with other treatments.

The pharmaceutical industry has already been operating in low-Earth orbit but with the help of astronauts on the International Space Station. Companies can buy space in the ISS laboratory, where astronauts manage hundreds of experiments. This will be the first experiment operating independently without hands-on intervention. 

Another Rocket Lab spacecraft for Varda is undergoing assembly and testing. 

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