We’ve written about inflatable space habitats several times since our first article on the subject appeared in 1999. Now, after years of planning, Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) is getting ready for an April 8 launch to the space station, packed inside the “trunk” of a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship.
If the schedule holds, the Dragon will dock to the station a couple of days later. Then, around April 15, ground controllers in Houston will use the station’s robotic arm to grab the BEAM and berth it to the orbiting outpost’s Tranquility node, where it will remain attached for the next two years. (Note: an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the berthing.)
The module won’t be expanded to its full size until late May or early June. BEAM will take about 45 minutes to inflate to its full length and diameter (see the inflation sequence in the video above), after which it will have an internal volume comparable to a small room. The module is made of tough fabric of a propriety formula (think of a tough spacesuit rather than a thin balloon), and should behave pretty much like any metal module already attached to the station.
This first mission is all about testing. Sensors will monitor temperature and air pressure inside the BEAM, keep watch on radiation levels, and check for meteoroid impacts. The plan is for astronauts to enter the module just two or three times in the first six months, and then only for a few hours at a time, although they can visit more frequently if they choose. The hatch will stay shut when nobody’s inside.
Based on their experience with two previous Genesis modules, which are still in orbit even though they’re no longr returning data, Bigelow engineers expect the BEAM to prove as good as any other module attached to the station, which should open the way for even bigger inflatables in the future.
In case you missed them, here are some of our past articles on the topic: