Twenty-five years after NASA began designing an inflatable space house for astronauts, a habitat prototype will be launched next week for testing on board the International Space Station.
Astronauts will not spend a lot of time inside the module expansion activity Bigelow or BEAM, which swells to the size of a small bedroom. It flies to demonstrate the technology to make sure that the materials, assembly processes and safety features work as advertised.
Compared to traditional metal modules, such as the 13 pressurized modules that make up the space station, inflatable habitats are lightweight and compact to run, saving millions. BEAM, for example, which weighs about 3,100 pounds, increases the internal volume up to 560 cubic feet - 10 times more than its configuration at launch.
An inflatable module can also offer better radiation protection than metal habitats that can generate secondary particles that bombard the human body during solar storms and cosmic rays.
NASA began exploring inflatable habitats in the 1990s as part of a program called TransHab as a way to accommodate astronauts to Mars. Tests, including shooting bullets at the habitat model, have shown that it can withstand exposure to micrometeorites and space debris, as well as traditional aluminum spacecraft. Although the materials proved space suitability, the budget and political issues prompted NASA to cancel TransHab in 2000.
Originally, Robert Bigelow, a developer from Nevada, the owner of a network of hotels and a space entrepreneur, bought a license for TransHab technology from NASA and spent millions on developing and testing the design. Bigelow's space company, Bigelow Aerospace, manufactured and launched a couple of prototypes, Genesis 1 and 2, in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
BEAM will be the first of Bigelow's cosmic habitats to be inhabited.
"This is a course pointer for creating manned space habitats," Lisa Cauke, BEAM deputy manager for Bigelow Aerospace, told reporters during a weekly launch conference this week.
NASA pays Bigelow Aerospace $ 17, 8 million for the module, which is part of a 6,900 pound load, packed on board a SpaceX Dragon capsule for launch next week.
After the Dragon reaches the station, the BEAM will be removed from the unsealed capsule trunk compartment using the station manipulator and installed on the Tranquility connection node. Astronauts later activate the pressurization system, which will increase the size of the module to 12 feet in length and a diameter of 10 feet.
Most of the time, the BEAM hatch will remain closed, while the sensors will measure radiation, temperature and pressure. The module will also be equipped with tools for the detection of space debris and micrometeorites. The crew accommodation center will periodically collect data collected inside the module and carry out checks. BEAM is expected to remain attached to the station for two years, and then thrown overboard, and its berth port can be used for other spacecraft, said NASA’s BEAM project manager Rajib Dasgupta at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
From a structural point of view, however, the module is designed for five years, he added.
Bigelow Aerospace plans to further demonstrate with the launch of BEAM in free flight. The company owns and operates an outpost called B330. Bigelow rents space on board habitat for research organizations, enterprises and, possibly, space tourists.
NASA is interested in technology for astronauts at home during future distant space missions that exceed the duration of 21 days, for which its Orion capsule is designed.
"Success in demonstrating BEAM will certainly lead to a long way of proving the benefits and possibilities of expanding habitat for long-range space flights," said Dasgupta.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which will carry BEAM and other cargo to the station, is scheduled to launch from the Air Force base at Cape Canaveral in Florida at 4:43 pm EDT on April 8.