Watch the plasma fly in space capsule’s dramatic fall to Earth

It took less than 30 minutes for Varda Space Industries’ W-1 capsule to leave its orbital home of eight months and plummet back to Earth. Such a short travel time not only required serious speed (around 25 times the speed of sound), but also the engineering wherewithal to endure “sustained plasma conditions” while careening through the atmosphere. In spite of these challenges, Varda’s first-of-its-kind reentry mission was a success, landing back on the ground on February 21. To celebrate, the company has released video footage of the capsule’s entire descent home.

Check out W-1’s fiery return below—available as both abbreviated and extended cuts:

Installed on a Rocket Lab Photon satellite bus, Varda’s W-1 capsule launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket June 12, 2023. Once in low-Earth orbit, its mini-lab autonomously grew crystals of the common HIV treatment drug ritonavir. Manufacturing anything in space, let alone pharmaceuticals, may seem like overcomplicating things, but there’s actually a solid reason for it. As Varda explains on its website, processing materials in microgravity may benefit from a “lack of convection and sedimentation forces, as well as the ability to form more perfect structures due to the absence of gravitational stresses.”

In other words, medication crystals like those in ritonavir can be grown larger and more structurally sound than is typically possible here on Earth.

Although the experiment wrapped up in just three weeks, Varda needed to delay reentry plans multiple times due to issues securing FAA approval. After finally getting the go-ahead, the W-1 readied for its return earlier this month. All the while, it contained a video camera ready to capture its dramatic fall.

After ejecting from its satellite host, W-1 begins a slightly dizzying spin that provides some incredible shots from hundreds of miles above Earth. At about the 12-minute mark, the planet’s gravitational pull really takes hold—that’s when things begin to heat up for Varda’s experimental capsule.

[Related: First remote, zero-gravity surgery performed on the ISS from Earth (on rubber)]

At Mach 25 (around 17,500 mph), exterior friction between the craft and Earth’s atmosphere becomes so intense that it literally splits the chemical bonds of nearby air molecules. This results in a dazzling show of sparks and plasma before W-1’s parachute deploys to slow and stabilize its final descent. Finally, the capsule can be seen touching down in a remote region of Utah, where it was recovered by the Varda crew.

Next up will be an assessment of the space-grown drug ingredients, and additional launches of capsules for more manufacturing experiments. While they might not all include onboard cameras to document their returns, W-1’s is plenty mesmerizing enough.