Expandable space stations will increase space station size per cost by over ten times
Bigelow Aerospace has agreed with NASA to leverage the company’s B330 inflatable space habitat for use with NASA’s human space flight program. With the space agency eyeing deep space destinations, the systems could enable crews to travel deeper into the Solar System ever before.
Late this year or early next, NASA will build an addition to the International Space Station, increasing the orbital laboratory’s size from eight rooms to nine. The new room is like no other on the station, and will be very easy to construct: Just connect to a docking port, fill with compressed air, and you have an instant space habitat.
Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas needed to create the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Initially scheduled for a September launch, BEAM’s test deployment is now delayed due to the post-launch explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket bound for the ISS on June 28, and no one yet knows how long that delay will be. Once BEAM does reach its destination, it will undergo two years of intensive testing, a trial run for a technology that could play a significant role in future human spaceflight and low-Earth-orbit commercial ventures: inflatable spacecraft.
BEAM, designed to expand to 16 cubic meters, or about the size of a 10- by 12-foot room, weighs only 3,000 pounds at launch. Its density, that is, its mass divided by its volume, is 88 kilograms per cubic meter. By comparison, the density of the U.S. lab at the International Space Station, Destiny, is 137 kilograms per cubic meter. The ISS’s Tranquility module has a density of 194 kilograms per cubic meter.
Using a NextSTEP contract, Bigelow will work with NASA to investigate how the B330 platform might be used to support robust, safe, and affordable human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars. The B330, unlike traditional space station habitats, is an inflatable design. The advantage is you gain more volume for a given mass. For example, the Destiny module on the International Space Station (ISS) is a 15-ton section with a volume of 3,743 cubic feet (106 cubic meters). The B330 has a mass of approximately 20 tons but has a gigantic 11,654 cubic feet (330 cubic meters) of interior volume.
The advantages of the inflatable habitat do not end there. The B330 has superior ballistics protection to the ISS, something to consider when dealing with potential micrometeorites. Any small object penetrating the outer Kevlar shell will break into many smaller pieces and become embedded in the flexible foam and Kevlar layers.
With 24 to 36 layers (depending on location) the B330 can be as hard as concrete when fully expanded. Additionally, the B330 has radiation shielding equivalent to the ISS to protect the crew from solar storms. The B330 is equipped with solar panels, thermal radiators, and large windows and is capable of supporting a crew of six.