NASA and Affiliates Send Inflatable Habitat Named BEAM Into Space

Apr 09, 2016 07:50 AM EDT

BEAM me up, Scotty!

NASA recently partnered with the private company Bigelow Aerospace to develop the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, also known as BEAM. Launched into space this Friday, it's an inflatable inhabitation module that can help provide astronauts with "safe and sustainable space living quarters, workspaces and laboratories."

BEAM is an inflatable and expandable module which attaches itself to the International Space Station (ISS) and then expands. When properly pressurized, astronauts can enter and use it as an additional working space.

The Planetary Society said BEAM is meant to test the possibility of inflatable habitats in space. Patterned after a balloon, the 5.7-feet module is designed to expand up to its pressurized size of 12.5 feet long.

NASA recognizes the potential of expandable habitats because they weigh less and occupy less space when docked to a spacecraft for space launch.

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Julie Robinson, chief scientist of the International Space Station, was quoted as saying: "This is a launch we've been waiting for, for quite some time, because it's really important to our overall ISS research program."

She further described BEAM as a habitat that can around 2,000 kilograms of supplies and research equipment.

"The big driver on that amount of mass, which is really high compared to our average, is that we have about 1,400 kilograms for the BEAM module itself," she said.

The BEAM was attached to the Dragon Cargo spacecraft, a cargo re-supply vehicle tasked to deliver goods to the space station.

Once attached to the dock of the ISS, BEAM will be slowly pressurized using the space station's cabin air. Then, BEAM's internal air tank will finish the inflation process.

Scientists will closely monitor the inflation process so as not to endanger the lives of everyone inside the ISS. It is expected to be fully operational by the end of the month.

Some, however, showed concern, whether the balloon-like expandable material can withstand debris and other natural occurrences in space. In a report, NASA explained that BEAM has "a very robust micro-meteoroid and orbital debris shield. The shield is designed to stop potential particles from breaching into the primary structural restraint layer and the gas bladder."

In a video produced by NASA, they explained that as of now, the main purpose of BEAM is to collect data. Once pressurized, astronauts will enter the inflatable space and install sensors for its data connection.

They will only access BEAM three times a day. When not in use, the BEAM's valve will be fully closed for the safety of everyone on board. However, the ISS' air pressure will still circulate inside the BEAM. If this experiment proves to be successful, it will pave the way for bigger and more useful inflatable modules to be launched in space.

BEAM is not only monumental for NASA and the developers, Bigelow Aerospace. According to The Planetary Society, once BEAM is proven to be successful, the space agency might just consider building inflatable habitats for their future journeys to Mars.

Meanwhile, Bigelow would like to pave the way for inflatable living spaces which are applicable for both space and on Earth.

On an added note, the Dragon spacecraft carrying the BEAM and its resupply mission is under heavy media scrutiny, as the first attempt to resupply with the Falcon 9 Rocket failed in 2015.

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