NASA to Bigelow: One BEAM to stay up?
More than halfway through its planned two-year demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Bigelow Aerospace‘s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is performing so well that NASA is considering extending the habitat’s stay at the orbiting outpost.
Expandable space for the station
BEAM was berthed to the station’s Tranquility node on April 16, 2016, after having been delivered to the ISS via a Falcon 9 rocket on SpaceX‘s eighth commercial resupply flight (CRS-8), eight days prior.
An initial attempt to inflate the compact habitat was aborted on May 26, 2016, due to higher-than-expected internal pressures coupled with lower-than-expected expansion. This difficulty was probably because of the extra ten months that the module remained in storage following the failure of the CRS-7 mission. The issue was overcome by a multi-staged inflation process two days later.
Designed to test the performance and suitability of expandable habitats – something NASA had considered in the 1960s, culminating in the canceled TransHab module in the 1990s – BEAM would be jettisoned and allowed to destructively re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its two-year stay.
Over the course of the module’s attachment to the station, astronauts were set to periodically enter BEAM to collect data, gather air and microbial samples, and install test gear. To date, astronauts have accessed BEAM thirteen times without issue, and the collected data indicates the module is performing exceedingly well.
Indeed, sensors installed in BEAM have registered several probable micrometeoroid strikes on the soft outer covering, though none have penetrated the multiple layers of protective materials. Related, the expandable outer structure appears to be as adept in dealing with cosmic radiation as compared to the rest of the station.
From experiment to float-in closet
With BEAM performing so well, NASA has issued a synopsis indicating an intent to extend the module’s stay – and function – on the ISS.
While it will continue to play the role of a technology demonstrator, the module will also help to liberate space on the station. In its fully-expanded configuration, BEAM provides 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters) of pressurized volume, enough to contain up to 130 Cargo Transfer Bags (CTBs).
Though nominally stowed in the rigid modules of the ISS, moving CTBs to BEAM could free an equivalent of up to 4.4 International Standard Payload Racks (ISPRs), allowing for more research and experiments to be operated.
NASA expects to execute the new contract prior to completion of the current agreement, extending BEAM’s stay on the station for at least another three years, with the possibility of two more single-year extensions.
Bigelow will maintain ownership of the module under the extended mission and will support NASA as BEAM is converted from a test module to one that is safe for the crew to continue to access and use.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.