Bigelow Aerospace’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, was attached to the outer shell of the International Space Station in a roughly four-hour procedure completed by 5:36 a.m. EDT April 16. The 3,000-pound module arrived at the ISS on April 10, along with tons of crews supplies and materials for an array of scientific experiments.
The inflatable module — set for extensive testing once fully inflated in late May — is intended for use as habitat by future colonies on the moon and Mars. During the two-year test period, ISS crew will enter the module periodically to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions.
“(Tests) will allow investigators to gauge how well the habitat performs overall and specifically how well it protects against solar radiation, space debris and the temperature extremes of space,” NASA said. “Once the test period is over, BEAM will be released from the space station, and will burn up during its descent through Earth’s atmosphere.”
For launch aboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on April 8, BEAM was loaded about in a tightly packed configuration.[http://outerbusiness.com/2016/04/spacex-crs8-dragon/] Fully attached to the space station, it now measures just over 13 by 10 feet. The module is designed to protect against radiation and debris, and offers considerable weight savings over conventional-style metal modules.
Bigelow Aerospace was founded in 1999 by real estate developer Robert Bigelow, who also owns the Budget Suites of America hotel chain. The Las Vegas-based company bought the rights to some previous inflatable-habitat technology from NASA and worked to turn it into the much-improved BEAM system.
Bigelow first space-tested a BEAM prototype in 2006, and NASA subsequently awarded the company a $17.8 million contract to install BEAM on the ISS. It will remain attached to the space station for at least two years.
Bigelow Aerospace also is developing a much bigger space habitat, dubbed the B330. On April 11, the Las Vegas-based company announced it had signed an agreement with SpaceX rival United Launch Alliance to develop two of the huge modules, one for use as a near-orbit commercial space station and one for possible use as an extension wing of the ISS.
The B330 version that would be used at the space station has been christened XBASE, or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.