Spaceflight Insider

BEAM module marks one year in service

BEAM from external truss camera

The BEAM module in-situ on the ISS. Photo Credit: NASA

Bigelow Aerospace’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) module recently marked its one-year anniversary as a part of the International Space Station (ISS).

BEAM is an experimental module made of soft materials, unlike the hard exterior of the current ISS modules, and is expanded on orbit to its full size. When BEAM is expanded, it is almost twice its launch configuration length and is 40 percent larger in diameter. By using an expandable module, space and weight are both saved over current hard exterior modules when launched.

BEAM was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 8, 2016, and attached to the ISS eight days later. Full expansion of the module took place on May 28, 2016. The first attempt at inflation occurred two days earlier, but, after two hours, it was called off because the module was not expanding as quickly as expected.

BEAM REM shield

Astronauts aboard the space station 3-D printed a shield to cover one of the two Radiation Environment Monitors inside the BEAM. The shield, the white hemispherical shape at the center of the photograph, is shown above inside the BEAM module. In the coming months, the crew will print successively thicker shields to determine the shielding effectiveness at blocking radiation. Photo & Caption Credit: NASA

The second inflation attempt lasted seven hours and used multiple injections of air over that period, which eventually resulted in a fully expanded module. It is believed that the fabric, in its compressed configuration for launch, became stuck together during a lengthy 10-month launch delay after a Falcon 9 booster had failed on the previous ISS resupply mission.

The first time that anyone had entered the module on orbit was on June 6, 2016, when the hatch to BEAM was first opened. Astronaut Jeff Williams and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka entered the module and installed equipment to monitor the environment. This officially marked the start of the planned two-year demonstration mission.

Since then, astronauts have entered the module eight more times to perform maintenance on sensors and equipment as well as make observations about the environment inside and collect air samples.

So far, BEAM is operating as expected with some interesting surprises. One such surprise was that BEAM turned out to be warmer than anticipated after its deployment, which was a good result.

Steve Munday, the BEAM manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in November 2016: “A colder-than-expected BEAM would have increased the risk of condensation, so we were pleased when Jeff first opened the hatch and found the interior to be bone dry. BEAM is the first of its kind, so we’re learning as we go and this data will improve our structural and thermal models and analyses going forward.”

Sensors inside of BEAM that are designed to monitor and locate external impacts by orbital debris have recorded what are most likely a few micrometeoroid impacts. BEAM’s soft shell has performed well and no breaches have occurred. In reality, BEAM’s multiple outer protective layers, even being made up of soft materials, exceed requirements laid out for space station shielding.

Using two active Radiation Environment Monitors (REM), researchers at JSC have found that the dosage due to Galactic Cosmic Rays in BEAM is similar to other space station modules.

As the experimental module heads into its second year, the focus will remain on radiation and environmental observations. A hemispherical shield fabricated using onboard 3-D printing techniques will be used to protect one REM sensor inside and compare the results with one unprotected REM. The shield will be replaced with ones of increasing thicknesses of about 0.13 inches (3.3 mm) and 0.4 inches (10 mm), also produced using 3-D printing, and measurements will again be compared to those recorded by the unprotected REM.

Studying the dosage received from the Earth’s trapped radiation belts will help NASA design ways to protect crews from the radiation that will be encountered on deep space missions outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere.



Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.

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