An inflatable habitat will be launched to the International Space Station this week aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, is an inflatable room that will be attached to the space station as a fully functional addition.
Astronauts will only be permitted into the inflatable module for a few hours at a time, four times a year, over a period of two years. The purpose of this strange timing is to test the unit’s durability against the harsh radiations and debris fragments from space. NASA wants to ensure that BEAM (built by a private aerospace company, Bigelow) will meet safety standards for its astronauts.
The benefit of inflatable habitats is that we can send them to space in a much smaller payload, then, they can be fully inflated once in space. This doesn’t change the amount of weight that is being lifted from the earth, but at the least it occupies less space within compact cargo crafts. When compacted BEAM is 105.9 cubic feet (3 cubic m). When fully inflated, it will provide astronauts with a total 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters) of space to occupy.
But building inflatable space habitats is easy, relative to the rigours of constructing traditional habitats. The hard part is in shielding inhabitants from the dangers of space, and that is exactly why it will get such limited usage in it’s first few years. However, the company is quite confident that its unit meets the requirements of the rest of the space station.
The company is not able to elaborate on exactly what BEAM is made of (because it’s tech is proprietary) however Lisa Kauke, BEAM deputy program manager was able to share that it is comprised of a “soft goods, expandable material” and that it has demonstrated to “perform up to the standards of the ISS.”
“As a company, we’re really comfortable with the technology,” says Kauke. “We certainly demonstrated successfully that these modules can hold their pressure on orbit. We demonstrated our materials and processes.”
BEAM will launch into orbit on April 8th aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule. When it arrives at the space station it will be removed from the capsule’s trunk by the ISS’s robotic arm. Astronauts on board will be responsible for inflating the unit (approximately 45 mins) as well installing a series of sensors to dest for radiation.
Because of the relative cost of BEAM, it’s construction (and destruction) can be justified easily. After its two year test the unit will be jettisoned from the station and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Space recycling at it’s finest.
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