This artist’s concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), constructed by Bigelow Aerospace, attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Expandable space habitat manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace and launch provider United launch Alliance (ULA) issued a press release on Friday stating that the two companies would announce a new partnership at a news conference on Monday, April 11, at 4 p.m. MDT, at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs Colorado. Both ULA CEO Tony Bruno and Bigelow Founder and President Robert Bigelow will be at the press conference which will be live-streamed on ULA’s website. The announcement comes just as a crucial on-orbit test of expandable habitat technology is about to begin.
Expandable habitats are lighter and require less payload volume than traditional rigid structures. After being deployed in space, they can provide a comfortable area for astronauts to live and work inside. The habitats can also provide varying degrees of protection from solar and cosmic radiation, space debris, ultraviolet radiation and other conditions in space that are potentially harmful to humans.
Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
On Sunday, April 10, Bigelow’s Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) in the unpressurized aft trunk of SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon spacecraft. Five days later, the module will be removed and attached to the station using the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. Expansion of the module to its full size of 10 feet in diameter and 13 feet in length is scheduled to begin in late May.
BEAM’s mass is approximately 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg). It consists of two metal bulkheads, an aluminum structure, and multiple layers of a Kevlar-like material, with spacing between the layers.
BEAM should remain attached to the space station for about two years. During this time, ISS crew members will enter the module for a few hours several times a year to retrieve data from sensors and to assess how it is handling the rigors of space flight. It is hoped that this demonstration mission will help NASA to determine how well the habitat protects crews against solar radiation, space debris, and contamination.
At the end of the two-year testing and evaluation period, astronauts will use the space station’s robotic arm again; this time, to detach BEAM from the orbiting lab. The module will then de-orbit and burn up during its descent through Earth’s atmosphere.
Bigelow plans to produce a much larger habitat module in the future. The B330 is planned to be some 57 feet (17.3 meters) long and have 330 cubic meters (12,000 cubic feet) of usable internal space. The module is capable of providing living quarters for up to 6 astronauts and has an estimated lifespan of 20 years. B330 modules could be used for a number of purposes including orbital space stations, habitation modules for deep-space exploration, or surface habitats on the Moon or Mars. B330 habitats could be launched into space by the 552 variant of ULA’s Atlas V booster.