The orbital balloon: NASA tests blow-up space-craft
- Inflatable modules hailed as cheaper to launch and transport
- Can be compressed into a 7ft tube for delivery
- Module to be tested on board International Space Station
- Unit could be used for deep space exploration if tested successfully
- Plans for £32million-a-stay space hotel and a moon base using the technology revealed
PUBLISHED: 05:34 EST, 17 January 2013 | UPDATED: 11:30 EST, 17 January 2013
A prototype inflatable module is to be tested aboard the International Space Station to give astronauts an extra bedroom, Nasa has announced.
The inflatable module can be compressed into a 7ft tube for delivery, and is being heralded as a key component of future exploration and the development of commercial space travel and research.
It is designed by Bigelow Aerospace, based in Las Vegas, which has been awarded a $17.8 million (£11m) test project for the inflatable room – and hopes to develop space hotels and even planetary bases using the technology.
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Echo 1, launched in 1960 was the first inflatable space craft.
The NASA communication satellite rose 1,000 miles into space as a balloon.
It was dubbed a ‘sateloon’.
In 1961 an inflatable space station was proposed and a prototype built by NASA.
It was intended to be manned by one or two astronauts but it was never launched.
With the development of kelvar and other materials, the inflatable concept was revived in the 1990s, with NASA creating the TransHab. Budget cuts meant it was scrapped in 2000.
Astronauts will test the ability of the bladder, known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, to withstand heat, radiation, debris and other assaults.
Some adventurous scientists might also try sleeping in the spare room, which is the first piece of private property to be blasted into space, Nasa said.
Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, said as she unveiled the contract award that the inflatable module concept is simultaneously cutting edge technology and affordable.
‘This partnership agreement for the use of expandable habitats represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably, and heralds important progress in U.S. commercial space innovation,’ she said.
‘The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that enables important discoveries that benefit humanity and vastly increase understanding of how humans can live and work in space for long periods.’
Part of NASA’s interest in the inflatable technology is prompted by its potential for deep space missions.
If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could open the door to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, Nasa engineer Glen Miller said.
The agency chose Bigelow for the contract because it was the only company working on inflatable technology, said Nasa deputy administrator Lori Garver.
Founder and president Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in the hotel industry before getting into the space business in 1999, framed the gambit as an out-of-this-world property venture.
He hopes to sell his spare-tyre habitats to scientific companies and wealthy adventurers looking for space hotels.
Nasa is expected to install the 13ft blimp-like module in a space station port by 2015.
Mr Bigelow plans to begin selling stand-alone space homes in the next year.
The new technology provides three times as much room as the existing aluminium models, and is also easier and less costly to build, Mr Miller said.
Artist renderings of the module resemble a tin-foil clown nose grafted on to the main station. It is hardly big enough to be called a room.
Mr Miller described it as a large closet with padded white walls and gear and gizmos strung from two central beams.
VIDEO Have a look at how the module will work in space
Ms Garver said sending a small inflatable tube into space will be dramatically cheaper than launching a full-sized module.
‘Let’s face it; the most expensive aspect of taking things in space is the launch,’ she said.
‘So the magnitude of importance of this for Nasa really can’t be overstated.’
The partnership is another step towards outsourcing for Nasa, which no longer enjoys the budget and public profile of its heyday.
The agency has handed off rocket-building to private companies, retired it space shuttles in 2011 and now relies on Russian spaceships to transport American astronauts to and from the space station.
THE FIRST SPACE HOTEL?
If the Nasa scheme is a success, the inflatable technology could be used to built the first space hotel.
A 60-day stay will cost 25 million dollars (£15.6m), which does not include the 27.5 million dollars (£17m) it costs to get there and back, believes Mr Bigelow.
Mr Bigelow predicted that the primary customers would be upwardly mobile countries including Brazil, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates that ‘have a difficult time getting their astronauts into orbit’ and could use a private space station to barter and build up prestige.
He said the Nasa brand would enable him to begin selling Kevlar habitats several times the size of the test module.
‘This year is probably going to be our kick-off year for talking to customers,” he said. “We have to show that we can execute what we’re talking about.’
Mr Bigelow, who launched a small prototype of the module in 2006 after licensing the patent from Nasa, will rely on Boeing and Southern California rocket developer Space Exploration Technologies to provide transportation.
The biggest technological challenge will be transporting the collapsed module through the sub-zero temperatures of space without tearing or cracking any part of it, Mr Miller said.
When it arrives at the space station in 2015, scientists will blow it up and let it sit for a few days to test for leaks.
If it does not hold as promised, Nasa will take back a portion of the already bargain-basement price it paid Bigelow.
Standing beside scale models of research stations on Mars and the moon, Mr Miller said the project will encourage commercial ventures to follow the path Nasa blazes into space.
He added that it could also help achieve the holy grail of space exploration: missions that send astronauts out of orbit for more than a year.
‘The only way to do that is to expand it out and, voila, you have living space for three people to go to Mars,’ he said. ‘You can get three times the volume of a metallic can, and you can go up in the same ferry.’
A model of a concept space station made with Bigelow Aerospace habitat modules
The experimental unit, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, is intended to be easily launched because it takes up much less room than conventional space craft yet once in orbit is inflated to be much bigger.
Bigelow hopes that while providing practical solutions to space research, the modules will also serve as craft that can provide accommodation and working space for astronauts in orbit.
Its stated aim is ‘to provide affordable options for spaceflight to national space agencies and corporate clients’.
Previously, the company has launched two other inflatable modules but this is the first time it will be tested as part of a manned craft.
Genesis 1 was launched in in 2006 and Genesis 2 in 2007, both on Russian rockets, and are still in orbit.
Each has been tested to ensure a constant temperature and pressure can be maintained within the inflatable hull.
Bigelow last year announced a link up with the SpaceX company which is working to create Dragon spacecraft that can carry passengers into space.
The intention was that SpaceX would transport people into space where they would transfer to orbiting Bigelow inflatables.
Among the potential projects that Bigelow is looking at is building a base on the moon constructed from a series of linked inflatable modules.