This Thursday at 5.30 a.m. EDT (10.30 a.m. BST), you can watch an experimental expandable module be inflated on the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time, a crucial technology that may one day be used on missions to Mars and beyond.
Streamed live on NASA TV, the event on Thursday will see NASA astronaut Jeff Williams lead the operations. The expansion is due to start at 6.10 a.m. EDT (11.10 a.m. BST), and will take a couple of hours. Astronauts will then enter the habitat for the first time a week later on Thursday, June 2.
The module, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), was launched to the ISS on April 8 this year in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Then, on Saturday, April 16, it was removed from the back of Dragon and attached to the Tranquility module on the ISS.
It was attached in a compact form, which is the key purpose of this technology. Developed by Bigelow Aerospace from Las Vegas, BEAM is designed to expand to five times its current volume when it is inflated on Thursday. On future missions to deep space, one could envision these modules being used to save space at launch.
The event will be streamed live on NASA TV, above, on Thursday. NASA
BEAM will remain attached to the ISS for two years, during which time astronauts will enter the module several times a year. It won’t be used for much, though; at the moment, the only plans are to install sensors inside to see how the inflatable room handles prolonged spaceflight. These sensors will monitor the temperature and radiation levels inside, while also monitoring for impacts from bits of space debris.
If the tests proceed without a hitch, then Bigelow Aerospace has plans for bigger and better inflatable modules in the future. Most notably, they recently signed an agreement with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch a larger inflatable habitat, called the B330, at some point in 2020. This habitat will either be attached to the ISS or positioned alone in a separate orbit, possibly forming the first part of a new private space station.
Further down the line, the plan is to launch multiple B330 habitats and connect them in space, creating a “space hotel” that paying tourists can go visit on one of several new private spacecraft in development. There are even discussions to use inflatable habitats on missions to the Moon or Mars.
So, don't forget to tune in on Thursday for the big event. In the meantime, if you’ve got any questions for NASA or Bigelow Aerospace, they’ll be answering questions this Tuesday at 4 p.m. EDT (9 p.m. BST) on Facebook Live, and 5 p.m. EDT (10 p.m. BST) on Reddit.