I'm currently thinking about the potential of manufacturing certain items (ZBLAN, Semiconductors, Organs, Drugs, etc.) in LEO and I want to know whether it would be possible/legal to design a cubesat that would de-orbit, survive reentry, and land on the ground/ocean using parachutes so that the materials manufactured inside would be retrievable.

Proposed mechanisms for de-orbit that I've seen include CubeSat DRS and a 1U add-on Drag Deorbit Device. There is also the Qarman CubeSat which was deployed about a year ago but I haven't been able to find the results of that mission so any information on that would be nice.

I'm particularly interested in the legal aspects of intentionally reentering a spacecraft into airspace and of retrieving a cubesat from the ground/ocean but I realize this is a space forum and not a legal forum so any help on how one could accomplish this would be greatly appreciated.

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    $\begingroup$ Cool question! I've adjusted the wording a little bit to better match the site. Questions about regulations and some about laws are handled here regularly, but I think deliberate survival of reentry is a new one for this site! Generally cubesats and bigsats as well are required to provide a plan to ensure that they burn up and do not reach the ground so this is an interesting angle. Another drag device: What fraction of Terminator Tape™'s drag comes from interaction with Earth's magnetic field as a function of altitude? Is it ever important? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 2 '21 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ Since links tend to break and rot over time, I added a few descriptive words for each link in place of "this", "this" and "this". That way when one eventually breaks someone can track down a new one. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 2 '21 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ I'm reasonably sure there's no legal precedent for private companies performing cubesat reentry so you'd need to get a lawyer and have them talk to the government personally about this. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Mar 2 '21 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Thanks for the edits. I'm pretty new to this site and the question is definitely much clearer now. $\endgroup$ Mar 2 '21 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Dragongeek I think that there must be some widely recognized regulations on deliberately passing an object through the same general airspace that commercial air traffic might pass. In other words, in addition to a lot of unknowns that a space lawyer should definitely explore with governing bodies of the satellite's owner's government and the government of the place of launch, there are also probably some easily found rules against doing this without suitable NOTAM-type things, and a cubestat's reentry location is as unpredictable as it is guaranteed to happen. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 2 '21 at 23:36

Re-entry licensing in the United States is under the authority of the FAA. Under direction from the national space council, they recently finalized a streamlined regulatory process for both launch and re-entry activities, which you can read here (get cozy, it's a doozy).

If your goal is to be the manufacturer, you're probably better off working with a company that specializes in re-entry (see ideas below). That way you can avoid the nightmare of FAA licensing.

Space Stations

Depending on your manufacturing process, this could be possible today. Companies regularly do research on the ISS and MadeInSpace and others are already doing manufacturing. If you go this route, you take advantage of the existing, proven ISS cargo infrastructure, with your equipment going up on any cargo launch and your products coming back on a SpaceX Cargo Dragon.

The easiest way to explore options here, especially for early experiments, would be to work with NanoRacks, which was launching racks of microgravity experiments to ISS before they started deploying CubeSats. Nanoracks, as well as Axiom Space, are also working on private space stations to continue this service after the ISS is retired.

Re-entry capsules

There are companies working on re-entry capsules. I know SpaceWorks has made a lot of progress in this direction. If you aren't compatible with human space vehicles, they'd be good ones to talk to.

Reusable Launch Vehicles

I've heard some reusable launch vehicle developers theorizing about using their vehicle for short-term microgravity missions. Imagine having a small factory on every Starlink satellite mission, activated after all satellites are released, with the upper stage returned only after production is complete.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer! Just a few additional pointers to the FAA site, which isn't terribly intuitive. I'd start at: faa.gov/space/streamlined_licensing_process/licensing_process. It's complicated, but reentry licensing mostly boils down to safety certifications by the FAA. If you intend to have comms, you'll also need an FCC license. $\endgroup$ Mar 3 '21 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. I was theorizing about using a cubesat for testing purposes and to demonstrate the capabilities of space manufacturing. A lot of research has already been done on the ISS about manufacturing certain products. This company's value would come from scaling those processes until they are a meaningful step in the supply chain. Since this is a fairly capital intensive endeavor, we'd likely need to raise VC funding before we can launch large factories. Once the larger factories are in orbit, we'd use a dragon or eventually starship to resupply and bring down materials. $\endgroup$ Mar 3 '21 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ @VijayShanmugam It's really hard to get a CubeSat to re-enter and do anything useful in the same volume. If you're trying to start small and build a business, why not start out on ISS and build on the research that's been done there? As you grow, you can do the research to break free of ISS. When you do, I'd think the smallest step off of ISS would be an ESPA-class satellite off a Starlink rideshare ($1M/200kg) with SpaceWorks re-entry capsule built in. $\endgroup$ Mar 4 '21 at 16:22

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