Future Tech

FAA now requires reentry vehicles to get licensed before launch

Tan KW
Publish date: Mon, 22 Apr 2024, 07:12 PM
Tan KW
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Future Tech

The US Federal Aviation Administration is updating its launch license requirements: if you're launching something designed for reentry, you'll need a license for that, too. Before you launch.

It appears to be a response to last year's situation, where Varda Space Industries launched its W-1 mission without a license to bring the capsule back to US soil.

The notice, applicable from April 17, 2024, requires that if a payload is a reentry vehicle, then it must have re-entry authorization before launch will be authorized.

The FAA's concerns regarding launching without re-entry authorization stem from public safety and an acknowledgment that the reentry vehicle will eventually return to Earth once launched. Its mission might be constrained by propellant, component failure, or some other factor, but unless its orbit can be raised high enough for it not to be a concern, it will inevitably re-enter at some point.

The FAA explained: "Therefore, it is crucial to evaluate the safety of the reentry prior to launch."

Last year, Varda's W-1, based on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite bus, was launched into orbit. While the FAA gave permission for the launch, it did not give authorization for the capsule to return to the US.

The result was that the mission ended up being extended far beyond the original plan, although short of the year that the spacecraft could have remained on orbit.

The company emphasized on social media that it had followed the rules, and said: "Last year, the FAA gave Varda formal, written permission to launch W-1 & Varda complied w/ all requirements to do so.

"Varda will continue working with the FAA and other federal regulators as their policies regarding reentry operations continue to evolve."

A Varda spokesperson told The Register: "Once FAA issued a license early this year, our flight-proven reentry system safely and successfully landed at the Utah Test and Training Range," and added: "We expect to launch our next mission later this year."

SpaceNews reported that Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said that the updates were related to the Varda experience. He acknowledged that Varda was permitted to launch without a reentry license due to schedule pressures but noted that such a scenario was unlikely to be permitted again. ®



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