Wed. Mar 22nd, 2023

Half a year has passed since astronauts aboard the International Space Station successfully blew up a new habitat called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. On Tuesday, the space agency provided an update on the performance of the commercial module a quarter of the way through a two-year experiment: so far, so good.

“BEAM is the first of its kind, so we’re learning as we go, and this data will improve our structural and thermal modeling and analysis going forward,” said Steve Munday, NASA’s manager of the program. “Through NASA’s onboard sensor suites, our teams on the ground, and astronaut support on the station, we obtain extremely valuable data on the performance of expandable structures and habitats in space.”

The promise of inflatable modules is that they provide a greater volume of living and working space in orbit than a conventional module with a rigid structure. Inflatables can be folded within the limited diameter of a rocket fairing, and when BEAM expanded earlier this year, it almost doubled in length and increased in diameter by 40 percent. But neither NASA nor anyone else would entrust astronauts to this experimental technology without a full test. The BEAM experiment, for which NASA has a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace, will finally allow the space agency to fully test a concept it has been interested in since the 1990s.

One of the main concerns with expandable materials is their durability, ability to shield occupants from radiation and thermal properties. According to six months of data collected by the Distributed Impact Detection System on board the module, there is no evidence of debris impacts. In addition, radiation effects appear similar to conditions in the station’s existing rigid modules. Finally, the module did a pretty good job of maintaining a consistent temperature.

Click to see an animation of the BEAM module expansion, sped up.
Enlarge / Click to see an animation of the BEAM module expansion, sped up.


Bigelow plans to commercially develop expandable modules, possibly also as “space hotels.” NASA is also interested in the technology for exploration purposes. Bigelow has proposed a much larger 330-cubic-meter expandable module as an option for the space agency as it aims to develop a deep space habitat near the moon in the 2020s. It is one of six concepts NASA has chosen to fund for further development.

To that end, company founder Robert T. Bigelow has called on incoming President Trump to provide more funding to NASA that will support innovative ideas and economic development in space. “Christmas came early this year! For the United States, and as I believe will eventually be proven, for NASA, Christmas fell on November 8,” he said during a speech in Houston last week, celebrating Trump’s victory.

Bigelow noted that NASA receives only about 0.5 percent of the federal budget and argued that the struggling space agency deserved a bigger slice of the pie as he sees the US economy grow under Trump. “With President Trump in the White House, we have a good chance of real, sustainable economic growth of about 3.5 percent per year,” he said. “This contrasts with the anemic growth we’ve had at 1.8 percent over the past eight years. With this increase, the United States can easily afford NASA’s 1 percent and even more.”

List image by NASA

By akfire1

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