Space Commerce

Rocket Lab Completes Custom-Built Photon Spacecraft for Varda Space Industries

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
Rocket Lab
May 11, 2023
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Rocket Lab Completes Custom-Built Photon Spacecraft for Varda Space Industries
Custom-Built Photon Spacecraft for Varda Space Industries

Rocket Lab USA, Inc. (Nasdaq: RKLB) (“Rocket Lab” or “the Company”), a global leader in launch services and space systems, today announced it has completed and shipped a custom Photon spacecraft developed for Varda Space Industries (“Varda”), a leading in-space manufacturing and hypersonic re-entry logistics company.

The Rocket Lab-designed and built Photon spacecraft will provide power, communications, propulsion, and attitude control to Varda’s 120kg capsule that will produce pharmaceutical products in microgravity and return them to Earth. In addition to providing support during the in-space manufacturing phase of Varda’s mission, the Photon will place Varda’s hypersonic re-entry capsule (carrying finished pharmaceuticals on board) on a return trajectory to Earth. Varda’s space-manufactured products are targeting small molecule therapeutics, and over time larger molecules and biologics — all of which can have higher efficacy when produced in microgravity, while the re-entry capsule provides opportunities to advance hypersonic systems. This first mission will focus on small molecule formulation to provide insight into retrieved microgravity-grown pharmaceutical crystals, particularly the antiretroviral Ritonavir, an active ingredient in the COVID medication Paxlovid also used in the treatment of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

The Photon spacecraft was developed, manufactured, and tested at Rocket Lab’s Spacecraft Production Facility in Long Beach, California. With final assembly, integration, and test of the spacecraft complete, the fully integrated Varda spacecraft has been shipped to Vandenberg Space Force Base for launch on a commercial rideshare mission scheduled for no earlier than June 8.

This Photon spacecraft is the first of four ordered by Varda to support in-space pharmaceutical manufacturing. Leveraging Rocket Lab’s deep vertical integration, all Photon spacecraft incorporate Rocket Lab-designed and manufactured components and software including star trackers, propulsion, reaction wheels, solar panels, flight software, radios, composite structures and tanks, and separation systems.

“Opening access to space is about much more than launch for Rocket Lab. It’s about making it easier to put the ideas of tomorrow in orbit today, enabling innovation, rapid iteration, and new capabilities that will improve lives back on Earth. This is exactly what the team at Varda is doing by producing novel pharmaceuticals in orbit and we’re immensely proud to make that possible with our Photon spacecraft,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “Space Systems is a rapidly growing part of Rocket Lab’s business, and we’re delighted to deliver another spacecraft that leverages our vertical integration strategy for high-quality and cost-effective satellite solutions on rapid timelines.”

“Rocket Lab has been an asset in developing and delivering this spacecraft on our schedule and budget,” said Varda Space Industries Chief Executive Officer, Will Bruey. “Our engineers at Varda and the Rocket Lab team have worked together seamlessly and are excited by the benefits this spacecraft will bring to Earth and healthcare.”

Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft is a configurable spacecraft bus platform that can support a range of missions – from low Earth orbit to interplanetary destinations. A high energy variant of Photon was developed and launched by Rocket Lab in 2022, successfully deploying the CAPSTONE spacecraft to lunar orbit for NASA.

About Rocket Lab

Founded in 2006, Rocket Lab is an end-to-end space company with an established track record of mission success. We deliver reliable launch services, satellite manufacture, spacecraft components, and on-orbit management solutions that make it faster, easier, and more affordable to access space. Headquartered in Long Beach, California, Rocket Lab designs and manufactures the Electron small orbital launch vehicle, the Photon satellite platform, and the Company is developing the large Neutron launch vehicle for constellation deployment. Since its first orbital launch in January 2018, Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle has become the second most frequently launched U.S. rocket annually and has delivered 161 satellites to orbit for private and public sector organizations, enabling operations in national security, scientific research, space debris mitigation, Earth observation, climate monitoring, and communications. Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft platform has been selected to support NASA missions to the Moon and Mars, as well as the first private commercial mission to Venus. Rocket Lab has three launch pads at two launch sites, including two launch pads at a private orbital launch site located in New Zealand and a third launch pad in Virginia. To learn more, visit

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