Astronauts, too, thinking balloons this week
Posted May 27
Along with the kickoff Friday of the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest, there is also some ballooning going on 250 miles up. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) led by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams began deploying the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) around 5:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.
BEAM is an expandable habitat technology being demonstrated on the ISS. Inflatable habitats are lightweight and require minimal payload volume on a rocket, but expand after deployment in space to provide room for astronauts to live and work.
Expandable habitat technology is a part NASA’s Journey to Mars plans. Before astronauts can set foot on the red planet, a series of cargo flights filled with supplies and habitats are needed. Expandable habitat systems are lower mass and lower volume, so they are easier and cheaper to ship overall.
BEAM arrived on the ISS April 8 via a SpaceX Dragon capsule from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Astronauts used the station’s robotic arm to extract BEAM from Dragon on April 16.
BEAM was to be deployed Thursday morning from a compressed size of 8 feet in diameter by 7 feet in length, expanding nearly five times to 565 cubic feet of internal space, a similar volume to that of an ambulance here on Earth. After 3.5 hours of inflation, controllers called off the deployment after the habitat had only extended a few inches.
NASA and the manufacturer immediately began troubleshooting in hopes that astronauts can use it on June 2. Even if the inflation problem cannot be solved, several of the primary objectives of the two-year experiment can still be achieved. On-board sensors can still measure how well the structure protects against solar radiation, space debris and the temperature extremes of space. At the end of the experiment, BEAM will be detached from the station, de-orbited and will burn up as it falls through Earth's atmosphere.
Inflatable technology is nothing new. Bigelow’s design is rooted in an inflatable space station developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the late 1950s. The technology was revived in the 1990s and dubbed Transit Habitat or “TransHab” not only for its efficiency but also the additional protection the layers of fabric and other materials offer against cosmic rays and solar flares during deep space missions.