Next week, a rather exciting development is going to take place on the International Space Station (ISS). For the first time, NASA is going to test the viability of an inflatable, expandable module, a derivative of which may one day be used for missions to deep space, including to Mars.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, has been developed under contract by the Las Vegas-based private company Bigelow Aerospace. Back in 2006 and 2007, they first tested that the technology works with their unmanned Genesis 1 and 2 habitats in Earth orbit. Now, that same technology will be employed on the ISS.
BEAM will be launched in the trunk (back) section of SpaceX’s upcoming Dragon flight on April 8, 2016. The module is launched in a compact form, about four times smaller than its final volume, measuring 2.4 meters (7.75 feet) across and 1.7 meters (5.7 feet) long. Its final size will be 3.2 by 3.7 meters (10.5 by 12 feet), with an interior volume of 16 cubic meters (565 cubic feet).
“We’re fortunate to have the space station to demonstrate potential habitation capabilities like BEAM,” said Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA, in a statement earlier this month. “Station provides us with a long-duration microgravity platform with constant crew access to evaluate systems and technologies we are considering for future missions farther into deep space.”
BEAM will be attached to the Tranquility node on the ISS by the station’s robotic arm. However, although the launch is taking place next week, BEAM is not actually scheduled to be installed until the end of May, according to Rajib Dasgupta, NASA project and technical integration manager for BEAM, in a press briefing yesterday.
To inflate, the module will be pumped full of gas, with full deployment expected to take about 45 minutes. Once it is up and running, the ISS crew will equalize its air with that on the station, allowing them to enter the module. Although they are only scheduled to spend up to three hours in there at a time, it could essentially serve as an extra room.
But BEAM will not be used to aid astronaut operations just yet. Instead, this is just a demonstration of the technology, so the astronauts will be tasked with installing sensors inside the module. These will gather thermal, radiation, and impact data throughout the operational lifetime of BEAM, expected to be two years, after which it will be sent to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
BEAM is seen here in its compact form being loaded into Dragon's trunk. SpaceX
The impact data will be especially of interest. Modules on the ISS must be hardened against potential space debris, such as micrometeorites, so BEAM will have to prove it is up to the task. However, Bigelow is keeping the exact design of the shell of BEAM under wraps, although it is thought to be some sort of soft layered structure, at least part of which is made of Kevlar.
Bigelow Aerospace has grander ambitions than just attaching a demonstrator to the ISS, though. The company has made no secret of its desire to use these modules to build some sort of private space station in orbit, perhaps a privately run research facility or hotel that regular people can visit. In the press briefing, Lisa Kauke, BEAM deputy program manager at Bigelow Aerospace, said this was the “first step to manned spacecraft.” And NASA is clearly interested in the technology, too.
Whether Bigelow’s plans ever comes to fruition remains to be seen. But this test should prove to be exciting all the same, so make sure you tune in for the launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket next week, when another attempt at landing the rocket back on Earth will also be made – although perhaps, for once, this will be overshadowed by what's on board the rocket.