The first inflatable structure designed for human use in orbit was attached to the Tranquility module of the International Space Station (ISS) in April. A collaboration between Bigelow Aerospace, Las Vegas, Nev., and NASA, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was delivered to the ISS in the trunk of an unmanned Dragon cargo ship.
Using one of the space station’s robotic arms, BEAM was removed from the cargo ship, docked on the ISS and guided to the Tranquility module, where astronauts from the space station secured it in place. In May, the structure was inflated from its packed dimensions of 7.1 feet long and just under 7.75 feet in diameter to its pressurized dimensions of 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter. It weighs approximately 3,000 pounds.
BEAM is composed of two metal bulkheads, an aluminum structure, and multiple layers of soft fabric with spacing between layers, protecting an internal restraint and bladder system. A micrometeoroid and orbital debris layer is designed to stop potential particles from breaching into the primary structural restraint layer and the bladder. In the unlikely event of a penetration, the BEAM would slowly leak instead of bursting, which would preclude any damage to the rest of the space station.
The module, a prototype for larger habitats, will be used to test and validate the benefits of this technology for human habitation over a two-year period. Crews will routinely enter to monitor its performance. Learning how an expandable habitat performs in the thermal environment of space and how it reacts to radiation, micrometeoroids and orbital debris will provide information to address key concerns about living in the harsh environment of space. For more, visit www.bigelowaerospace.com.