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Expandable Habitat Demonstration Will Test Technologies Needed for Deep Space Exploration


A lot goes into building a house, from finding the right place to put it, gathering the experts and right materials to build it, and scheduling tasks to complete the project.

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Credit: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC

The BEAM module will be attached to the rear port of the space station’s Node 3. After installation, the BEAM expands to roughly 13-feet-long and 10.5 feet in diameter.

A new addition to the International Space Station may simplify the process, not necessarily for homes on Earth, but to create homes millions of miles away, on the journey to deep space destinations, including Mars.

The eighth SpaceX resupply mission, scheduled to launch to the space station April 8, will carry the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) – an experimental module made by Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, which can dock with the station and then expand to approximately 12 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter, providing a potential habitable area for crew members to live and work in space.

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Credit: NASA

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, left, and Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, take a closer look at the packed Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) at Bigelow Aerospace’s Las Vegas facility before it launches on the eighth SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station.

“The space station provides an ideal laboratory to test the BEAM expandable module in the harsh environment where it will have to operate,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the International Space Station. “BEAM has many desirable features for space habitats. Attaching this expandable module to the space station offers NASA the opportunity to expose it to the radiation, temperatures, pressures and micrometeoroid environment, and measure how it holds up.”

Once the SpaceX Dragon capsule is docked to the space station, a crew member will use the station’s robotic Canadarm2 to extract BEAM from the capsule’s aft trunk compartment and attach it to the rear port on the Tranquility node. After the module is secured to the port, BEAM will be left alone for a few weeks before crew members expand it from its packed dimensions of nearly six feet long and just less than eight feet in diameter to its pressurized dimensions of 12 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter.

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Credit: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC

The BEAM module’s skin is made up of multiple layers designed to protect it from micro-meteoroid and orbital debris.

During BEAM’s two-year test period, the module will typically be closed off to the rest of the space station. Astronauts will enter the module six to eight times each year to collect deployment load, temperature, pressure and radiation data, and to assess its structural condition. After two years of monitoring, BEAM will be jettisoned from the space station to burn up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

An important feature of the BEAM module is the size and weight. BEAM weighs approximately 3,000 pounds and has 565 cubic feet of pressurized volume.

“Expandable habitats significantly decrease the amount of transport volume for future space missions,” said Rajib Dasgupta, BEAM project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “These expandables take up less room on a rocket, but once set up, provide greater volume for living and working. After thorough testing, we believe crews traveling to the moon, Mars, asteroids or other destinations could use them as habitable structures or as labs or work areas.”

When building a shelter like a house, the right materials are essential to keep the occupants safe. In space, this means a durable material providing protection from space debris, the temperature fluctuations, and solar and cosmic radiation.

The BEAM module’s skin is made up of multiple layers of soft goods. The different layers consist of an air barrier or bladder, structural restraint, micro-meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) layers, and external multi-layer thermal insulation layers. BEAM has no windows.

The robust MMOD shield is designed and tested for the low-Earth orbit environment, and is designed to stop MMOD particles from breaching the primary structural restraint layer and the air bladder. In the unlikely event of a puncture, BEAM would slowly leak instead of bursting. It is designed in this manner to preclude any damage to the rest of the space station.

The BEAM is an example of NASA’s increased commitment to partnering with industry to stimulate the growth of commercial industry in space. The BEAM project is a public-private partnership between Bigelow Aerospace, Sierra Nevada Corporation, NASA’s International Space Station program and Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division, which pioneers innovative approaches to rapidly and affordably develop prototype systems for future human exploration missions.

It may be a few more years before expandable habitats see regular use in orbit, but the BEAM will help NASA better understand the potential for expandable habitats for future space exploration.

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