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FAA now requires reentry license to prevent spacecraft getting stuck up there

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The FAA said that it won’t allow “reentry vehicles” to launch into space without a license to return back to Earth. DepositPhotos

What happens if you design a spacecraft to survive reentry, but launch without a green light from regulators to bring it back down? As we saw with Varda Space Industries, which fired a capsule into orbit last spring to make stuff in zero gravity, you might have to park in orbit until your Federal Aviation Administration paperwork is complete.

In a new April 17 notice effective immediately, the FAA seems to be indicating that it’s looking to avoid repeats of the Varda saga, which successfully landed its capsule in Utah back in February after a roughly seven-month delay. The company aimed to grow Ritonavir crystals in space, taking advantage of the environment to potentially improve the efficacy of the HIV antiviral drug.

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

Without citing the incident directly, the agency said that it won’t allow “reentry vehicles” to launch without a license to return. In other words, if a company plans to bring its vehicle back, it can’t send one into space in the first place unless the FAA has preemptively deemed its reentry plans safe. The agency said it analyzes the impact vehicles may have on public health, property, and national security before issuing reentry licenses.

Without pre-approval, the FAA argues critical systems could fail or the vehicle might run out of propellant or power, before regulators and reentry operators get all their ducks in a row.  The agency says it reviews numerous details that are self-disclosed by reentry operators, including the payload’s weight, the amount of hazardous materials present, the “explosive potential of payload materials” and the planned reentry site.

Varda emphasized earlier this month that it received launch approval last year and complied with all regulatory requirements to do so. In a statement to SpaceNews, FAA associate administrator Kelvin Coleman said the agency learned “some lessons” when it approved the company to launch without a reentry license.  

As spaceflight evolves, returnable vehicles require special attention to mitigate collisions with people and property on the ground, the FAA said in its notice. “Unlike typical payloads designed to operate in outer space, a reentry vehicle has primary components that are designed to withstand reentry substantially intact and therefore have a near-guaranteed ground impact,” the FAA wrote. 

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

Source : Popular Science

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