Two US Aerospace companies have announced a plan to build a habitat in lunar orbit by 2022, offering the US a route to explore the Moon.
Bigelow Aerospace and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) revealed their plan yesterday. The former wants to build an inflatable habitat called the B330, and launch it on the ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.
The idea is to test this habitat in Earth orbit for a year or so, launching in 2020. Then, it would be moved into lunar orbit, where astronauts could visit it.
"This commercial lunar depot would provide anchorage for significant lunar business development in addition to offering NASA and other governments the Moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training,” Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, said in a statement.
Bigelow’s inflatable technology is often touted as a way to build space habitats in the future. The habitats launch compactly and expand once they reach space by being pumped full of gas. The company currently has a prototype habitat, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), installed on the International Space Station.
The B330 is an advancement on BEAM, providing a larger living area. As its name implies, it has 330 cubic meters (11,650 cubic feet) of space, compared to BEAM's 16 cubic meters (565 cubic feet).
It would be pushed to the Moon by the upper state of the Vulcan rocket (which will launch for the first time in 2019), called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES). Two of these would be placed in orbit, with one refueling the other, before attaching to the B330 and taking it into lunar orbit.
In the video above, Bigelow Aerospace suggests that crews could be transported to the B330 by SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. The habitat has space for up to six people on board.
Last year, Bigelow and the ULA announced they wanted to work together on a space hotel of sorts, sending multiple B330s into Earth orbit. That plan seems to have evolved somewhat, perhaps in line with shifting American space goals.
“Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars,” said Bigelow, adding it could “support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.”
This is of course in reference to Vice President Mike Pence’s comments the other day that the US would focus its human space exploration efforts on the Moon, not Mars. NASA has been working on an idea to build a lunar space station called the Deep Space Gateway, but perhaps Bigelow’s proposal will offer an alternative.