BEAM passes initial inspection; interior photos released
The International Space Station’s (ISS) first expandable addition, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), passed its initial inspection by two of the station’s residents. Additionally, NASA recently released high-resolution photos of the modules interior and exterior.
NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Jeff Williams first entered the module on the morning of June 6, 2016, followed by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. Both wore basic breathing gear as a standard precaution. Their initial task was to collect an air sample from inside BEAM and begin downloading data from sensors in the 13.2-foot (4.01-meter) long module.
Williams told flight controllers at Mission Control, Houston, that BEAM’s interior looked “pristine” and said that other than feeling cold, there was no evidence of any condensation on its inner surfaces. That was a relief to all parties involved after the initial expansion issues in late May.
The two space explorers also installed sensors inside BEAM for monitoring air pressure, temperature, and other variables, along with other hardware. Williams and Skripochka completed their initial inspection and equipment setup June 8 and closed the hatch. They likely will not open the module again until August.
BEAM will probably be inspected six or seven times each year during its two-year stay attached to the Tranquility module on the ISS. The module will then be automatically jettisoned into space using the station’s robotic Canadarm2.
“BEAM will naturally drift away from the Space Station and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere about a year later,” said a NASA team during a Reddit AMA interview last month. “It will pose an extremely low risk to people on the ground – most of BEAM is made of fabric that will burn up quickly during re-entry. Even in a worst case scenario, there is an extremely low risk of falling near anyone according to conservative computer model analysis.”
BEAM’s journey began when its manufacturer, Bigelow Aerospace, received a $17.8 million contract from NASA in 2013 to create an experimental module to test for human habitation on the ISS and future vessels.
Launched atop SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon cargo vehicle April 8, 2016, the module arrived at the ISS two days later. A week after that, the module was moved from the trunk of the SpaceX capsule with the Canadarm2 to the aft port of the Tranquility module.
The initial attempt to expand the Bigelow module on May 26 ended in failure. After being determined that this was due to the module’s fabric layers sticking together because of an unexpectedly long storage on Earth, BEAM was properly expanded on May 28. The ISS crew entered the new module in early June to inspect it.
BEAM is a prototype for future space vessel modules. Its compact nature should make transportation and storage in space easier to accomplish. Its proprietary Kevlar material will be tested to see if it can provide better shielding against radiation and meteoroids than current similar spacecraft materials, both of which are significant threats to crew safety in space.
“As a technology demonstrator, BEAM will be fully instrumented with a variety of sensors by the Space Station crew after deployment and ingress, including thermal, debris impact, and radiation sensors,” the NASA team wrote during the Reddit AMA interview. “Data from the sensors inside BEAM will be downloads by engineers on the ground throughout the two-year mission. This data will be invaluable for the viability and design of future expandable habitats.”
The NASA team expanded on the future uses for BEAM and its descendants during the AMA interview. They said that the technology could potentially be used for deep space habitats on the surface of Mars or as transit habitats attached to Orion on its way to deep space destinations.
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.