If the thought of travelling for months or years in the confinement of a tiny spacecraft is making you give up on the idea of interplanetary exploration, then Thursday’s arrival of an unusual cargo at the International Space Station could maybe make you change your mind.
Designed to unfold once in space, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, could provide space missions with larger and more robust living quarters – if proven successful.
The 1400kg craft will be attached to a port on the station during a resupply run by private US space company SpaceX.
“It will expand out to be a fully deployed structure, and at that point the astronauts will actually enter the BEAM, and that will be a historic moment,” Mike Gold, from Bigelow Aerospace, told Al Jazeera.
Spacecraft are normally made from sealed aluminum shells, packed with insulation and shielding.
Their size is usually limited by the type of rocket they are launched on.
To get around this, Bigelow Aerospace developed an expandable craft that provides a habitat four times its packed-down size.
“This type of technology can be a complete game changer,” Space Systems Expert at MIT Sydney Do told Al Jazeera.
“[It will make] deep space missions to asteroids, the Moon or Mars, a lot more economical and the reason why that’s the case is inflatable technologies in general allow you to have more room for a smaller amount of mass.”
Protection in a hostile environment
The walls of the habitat are made out of 16 layers of high-tech materials.
These include pressure seals, radiation and heat protection, as well as a layer of material that is similar to the one used in bulletproof vests, in an effort to protect the habitat against the impact of micro-meteoroids or space debris.
“If you were going to get shot would you rather have aluminum in front of you or a Kevlar-like weave, which is a similar technology to which we use in our habitats?” asks Gold.
“I would vote for the Kevlar. It’s actually a much safer system when it comes to both radiation and the physical debris.”
The 4m-long experimental habitat has no windows, nor internal power, and will not be lived in by astronauts on the space station.
Crew members will enter the module every few months to collect sensor data and inspect its general condition.
Larger habitat planned
The expandable space habitat will spend the next two years attached to the space station, undergoing tests, but Bigelow Aerospace has plans for a much bigger model.
It says its B330, which can be expanded to provide 330 cubic metres of internal space, is big enough to house up to six crew memebers, and will make long-duration space travel to the Moon or Mars cheaper and more comfortable.
“As you spend more time in an extremely remote environment, psychologically it is more comforting for you if you have more volume,” says Do.
“It’s the difference between staying in a youth hostel and staying in the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel. If you are going to stay somewhere for many months to years, you want to live in that penthouse suite.”