This weekend a monumental event will take place on the International Space Station (ISS), when the first-ever inflatable habitat will be attached.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was launched just last week on the SpaceX rocket that also performed a successful barge landing. This module is revolutionary, in that it launched in a compact form, but will inflate to more than five times its size by being pumped full of air.
On Saturday, April 16, the action is set to begin, and it will be broadcast live on NASA TV. At 2:15 a.m. ET (7:15 a.m. BST), controllers on the ground at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will use the station’s robotic Canadarm2 to remove BEAM from the trunk of SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle, where it is currently stored, and attach it to the Tranquility module on the ISS. The whole process should finish by 6:15 a.m. ET (11:15 a.m. BST).
It should be noted that, although the module is being attached, it won’t actually be inflated yet. That’s set to take place at an unspecified date in late May, after which astronauts will enter the habitat for the first time, with it remaining attached to the ISS for two years before being sent to burn up in the atmosphere.
Various sensors will monitor BEAM, including the amount of radiation inside, and the effect of micrometeoroids hitting its outer layers. However, it’s unlikely BEAM will be used for much else other than testing out its capabilities. NASA has no plans for astronauts to regularly use it as an extra room on the ISS at the moment.
When the inflation takes place in May, it should last no more than a couple of hours. The module will expand from 2.1 meters (7 feet) wide and 2.4 meters (8 feet) in length to 3 meters (10 feet) wide and 4 meters (13 feet) in length – which increases its total volume five times.
If the module is attached without a hitch, this will have been a good week for Bigelow Aerospace. Yesterday, the company announced that it had partnered with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to fly a more advanced inflatable habitat, the B330, by 2020. This will either be attached to the ISS, or fly alone in orbit, an important step towards building a private space station – or perhaps a space hotel – that paying customers can visit.
So tune in on Saturday, and see a bit of space history being made.