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Space station to get inflatable extension

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Jan 16, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—NASA has ordered an inflatable extension to the International Space Station (ISS) from Bigelow Aerospace. The expandable module is set to arrive in 2015 for a two year demonstration of the technology.

Bigelow Aerospace, which already has two prototype inflatable modules in orbit, has received a contract worth $17.8 million from NASA to attach a "Bigelow Expandable Activity Module" (BEAM) to the space station. BEAM will go into space in 2015, to be delivered to the orbiting complex by a SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter. Astronauts will use a robotic arm aboard the station to put the module on the Tranquility node, and then pressurize the structure.

Once fully inflated and attached to the station, the room will be about 4 metres long and 3 metres wide. Crews will spend at least two years evaluating BEAM's performance, looking at factors such as radiation, temperature, and how much it leaks. After the test period, astronauts will jettison the module, which will burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

"The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM," stated William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA.

"As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability. Using the station's resources, we'll learn how humans can work effectively with this technology in space, as we continue to advance our understanding in all aspects for long-duration spaceflight aboard the orbiting laboratory."

Bigelow's expandable modules are constructed from Vectran and tests have shown that this is more robust than traditional "aluminium can" designs. Bigelow's expandable habitats are also being designed with micrometeorite and orbital debris shielding.

"This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation," stated NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.

NASA and Bigelow are already working closely together, as the entities both plan to make extensive use of Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft to bring astronauts into orbit.

Additionally, Bigelow plans to use the spacecraft - and possibly the crewed version of SpaceX's Dragon which is being developed - to taxi space tourists to and from its Bigelow Orbiting Space Complex, which is an inflatable space station under development.

Bigelow Aerospace was founded by Robert T. Bigelow in 1999. The entrepreneur had a vision of creating reliable, expandable space habitats that could lower the cost of bringing items into orbit.

So far, Bigelow has successfully brought two prototypes into space: Genesis I, which flew in July 2006, and Genesis II, which launched June 2007. These spacecraft are still orbiting Earth today.

"[Genesis I] is continuing to produce invaluable images, videos and data for Bigelow Aerospace. It is now demonstrating the long-term viability of expandable habitat technology in an actual orbital environment," the company states on its website.

According to Bigelow, inflatable habitats are not only cheap, but radiation resistant. Metal structures are prone to an effect known as secondary radiation, which occurs when radiation hitting the metal scatters or excites and re-radiates atoms in the structure. This phenomenon is reduced with the non-metallic structure used in inflatable spacecraft.

Bigelow's next generation of inflatable habitat is their BA 330 module which will be larger than the Genesis prototypes. The BA 330 module, with a volume of 330 cubic metres, will be capable of accommodating up to six humans. It has protection from space debris with its "Micrometeorite and Orbital Debris Shield". Bigelow's habitats are built with Vectran. In laboratory tests, the company's results state that micrometeroids only go halfway through the layered Vectran material on its modules. These same strikes would penetrate the other modules of the International Space Station.

Artist illustration of Bigelow Aerospace

Artist's illustration of a Bigelow Orbiting Space Complex made up of Bigelow Aerospace BA 330 expandable habitats. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

The company is hiring amid the new contract from NASA, with open positions ranging from a machine shop inspector to software and systems engineers.

Bigelow also promises to train astronauts who are planning to use their facilities. "Training will include qualification screening for mental and physical health, acclimation to physical forces including microgravity, operation of space station daily living systems, and mission specific training," the firm stated.