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article imageRoom with a view of the world — ISS gets inflatable room

By Karen Graham     Apr 8, 2016 in Science
Space X is scheduled to launch its eighth Dragon cargo spacecraft at 4:43 p.m. EDT on Friday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, headed for the International Space Station. Besides a variety of supplies, the spacecraft will be carrying an inflatable room.
The inflatable room is called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). It will be folded up in the trunk of the Dragon spacecraft, sort of like a parachute that is ready to be unfurled.
The BEAM is a technology demonstration model that is meant to pave the way for future bases on the Moon, and Mars exploration. It is even being touted as the first step in orbiting outposts catering to scientists and tourists. Bigelow Aerospace is behind the experiment.
Interior of the BEAM (mock-up).
Interior of the BEAM (mock-up).
BEAM - A two-year experiment
NASA says that After docking, BEAM inflates to roughly 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter in about 45 minutes, and provides a habitable sized space for a crew member to enter. BEAM weighs about 3,000 pounds and has 500 cubic feet of pressurized volume.
"It's not just historic for our company, which obviously is the case, but I think it's historic for the architecture," said Robert Bigelow, founder, and president of Bigelow Aerospace and owner of Budget Suites of America.
The whole concept is designed to be used for future Mars Missions where astronauts would have a comfortable place to live and work. One of its advantages is that it is lightweight. The BEAM will be tested for two years to see how it will withstand space temperatures, radiation, and any debris it encounters.
This is the BEAM all packaged up. It weighs about 3 000 pounds.
This is the BEAM all packaged up. It weighs about 3,000 pounds.
While attached to the outside of the ISS, the BEAM will not be used to hold supplies and will not be occupied. It will be constantly monitored for temperature, radiation and pressure. Four times a year, the ISS crew will enter the BEAM to collect data and check its structural integrity. After the two-year testing period is over, BEAM will be released from the ISS to burn up on reentry into Earth's atmosphere.
Looking toward the future, Mr. Bigelow said BEAM could “change the entire dynamic for human habitation” in space. He hopes to have a pair of private space stations ready for launch by 2020. He also noted that companies and even countries are wanting to put their own experiments inside the empty BEAM.
Applications for the use of inflatable capsules like the BEAM
One of the big concerns in space travel is the danger from radiation after astronauts get beyond low-Earth orbit. There are increased risks for crews living inside aluminum walls. So the testing of the BEAM for radiation will be very important.
As for being in danger of being hit with "space junk" NASA project manager Rajib Dasgupta says BEAM has proven to be equal or better than metal at withstanding contact. Bigelow says there are plans in place now for a much larger expandable habitat B330, providing 330 cubic metres of internal space, the size of a couple of buses. The company hopes to launch two B330s around 2020
But wait, these expandable capsules have applications for use here on Earth, too. Their versatility allows for their use as pop-up habitats in disaster areas or remote locations; storm surge protection devices; pipeline or subway system plugs to prevent flooding, fluid storage containers, hyperbaric chambers for pressurized oxygen delivery, and many other applications.
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