Remember that inflatable habitat that NASA attached to the International Space Station (ISS)? Well, it’s still going strong – so NASA is going to keep it attached to the ISS a bit longer.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), built by Las Vegas-based company Bigelow Aerospace, was attached to the ISS in 2016. The revolutionary design launched in a compact form, before being pumped with gas and expanding to five times its original volume.
It’s hoped that this technology might be useful for future space exploration to the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere. Being able to launch in a much smaller form than a regular habitat, it can save a lot of space.
Initially, NASA planned to keep BEAM attached to the ISS for two years, as they tested out its performance and capability. It would have been jettisoned sometime in 2018 and sent to burn up in the atmosphere.
Now NASA is considering keeping it attached to the ISS for at least three more years, with the possibility of extending it until 2021. NASA would then use BEAM not just for testing, but also as storage space too. At the moment, BEAM is largely empty apart from a few experiments to test its temperature, radiation levels, and pressure.
“Using the space inside BEAM would allow NASA to hold between 109 to 130 Cargo Transfer Bags of in-orbit stowage,” said NASA in a statement.
“Given that the volume of each Cargo Transfer Bag is about 1.87 cubic feet (0.53 cubic meters), use of BEAM for stowage will free an equivalent space of about 3.7 to 4.4 International Standard Payload Racks, enabling more space in the ISS for research.”
We haven’t heard too much from Bigelow recently, particularly in terms of its future plans, although we know they’ve got a loose partnership in place with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to build some sort of space hotel after 2020.
Meanwhile, NASA is looking into building a space station near the Moon, called the Deep Space Gateway, and Bigelow is one of several companies working with NASA on space habitats. Whether inflatable modules will play a part in that project remains to be seen.