On 8 April 2016, tucked away tightly in the hold of a Space-X Dragon cargo spacecraft, Bigelow Aerospace launched their innovative solution to the confines of living in space. Two days later, the payload docked with the International Space Station. It was unpacked by British astronaut, Tim Peake, who installed the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, onto the station’s Tranquillity Node.
The BEAM is an experimental, inflatable habitat, designed as an alternative to the conventional metal modules that currently make up the ISS. For the next two years, it will be used to put the cutting edge technologies on board to the test.
The module itself is composed of two metal bulkheads, with an aluminium structure connecting them, and multiple layers of soft fabric stretched over the top. In its deflated and compact form, the module is concertinaed into a flattened cylinder, and when injected with air, opens out to form a circular living space for astronauts, similar to a super-sized, pop-up tent.
Once installed on the space station however, inflation of the module got off to a rocky start. Due to delays in the initial launch, the pod had been subjected to an extended period in its collapsed state, causing some of the material folds to stick together and hinder the inflation. Two days later however, on 28 May 2016, the module was successfully expanded, and on board air tanks equalised the inside air-pressure with the ISS.
The ultimate goal of the two-year experiment is to demonstrate the ability to successfully launch and deploy an expandable module, and ensure a safe and habitable environment can be maintained inside. Reducing the size of payloads with the use of expandable modules could have the potential to reduce the number, and even cut the cost, of cargo missions required to develop the space stations of the future.
While installed on the ISS, the inflatable pod will be regularly tested to determine the radiation protection provided by the soft fabrics, and demonstrate the structural, thermal and mechanical durability of the habitat. Astronauts will enter the pod every three to four months to assess its performance, spending several hours at a time inside the module.
After two years of service have been completed, the BEAM will be robotically detached from the ISS and jettisoned, where it will burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
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