CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - NASA will send an inflatable habitat module to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that is scheduled to launch from Cape Canvaveral Air Force Station on April 8, 2016 at 4:43 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an expandable habitat technology demonstration that will be tested aboard the ISS. These “expandables” (commonly also called “inflatables”) are lightweight and require minimal payload volume on a rocket, but expand after being deployed in space to potentially provide a comfortable area for astronauts to live and work. They also provide protection from solar and cosmic radiation, space debris, atomic oxygen, ultraviolet radiation and other elements of the space environment; an important aspect of the project is to measure many environmental characteristics to quantify the module’s protective qualities.
BEAM will be transported inside the SpaceX Dragon supply vehicle’s unpressurized aft trunk compartment. After being attached to the Space Station's Tranquility Node using the robotic Canadarm2, the station crew will activate a pressurization system to expand the structure from its packed dimensions of 5.7 feet long and just under 7.75 feet in diameter to its pressurized dimensions of 12 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter.
During a two-year test period, station crew members and ground-based engineers will routinely gather performance data on the module, including its structural integrity and leak rate. BEAM will not be occupied or used for storage during the test period. Instead, an assortment of instruments embedded within module will provide insights on its response to the space environment and how it reacts to radiation, micrometeroids, and orbital debris. This includes radiation and temperature changes compared with traditional aluminum modules.
BEAM weighs approximately 3,000 pounds and has 560 cubic feet of pressurized volume. The BEAM module’s skin is made up of multiple layers of soft goods. The different layers consist of the air barrier (bladder), restraint, Micro-meteoroid and orbital debris layers, External MLI layers and an exterior BETA cloth. The restraint provides the primary structural load bearing member of the BEAM module.
The shield is designed to stop potential particles from breaching into the primary structural restraint layer and the gas bladder. The probability of penetration is extremely low, according to NASA. In the very unlikely event of a penetration, the BEAM would slowly leak instead of bursting. It is designed in this manner to preclude any damage to the rest of ISS. Another desirable feature of the fabric skin of BEAM is its ability to better absorb noise for a quieter habitable volume than the aluminum walls of the ISS modules.
If BEAM performs favorably, it could lead to future development of expandable habitation structures for future crews traveling in deep space. NASA hopes that these expandable habitats will greatly decrease the amount of transport volume for future space missions.
Following the test period, the module will be jettisoned from the station, burning up on re-entry.