The International Space Station (ISS) is now one room larger, following the successful expansion of an inflatable compartment. This success follows a previous, unsuccessful, attempt to inflate the room.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental habitat designed to allow NASA to expand the living and storage space of the ISS at minimal cost. This is the first inflatable compartment ever tested in orbit. The habitat was designed and manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace.
"Expandable habitats are designed to take up less room on a spacecraft but provide greater volume for living and working in space once expanded. This first test of an expandable module will allow investigators to gauge how well the habitat performs and specifically, how well it protects against solar radiation, space debris and the temperature extremes of space," NASA officials said.
Astronaut Jeff Williams led the process of inflating the habitat, and soon reported hearing a series of short snaps. This sound was expected by ground controllers, who reported the noise was stitching ripping apart as designed as the room filled with air. It took roughly 10 minutes for the room to expand from air supplied by eight pressurized tanks.
Such expandable habitats may provide superior shielding for astronauts from radiation. Development of this technology could lead to designs for living quarters able to house a crew of space travelers on a three-year journey to the planet Mars.
"Before sending the first astronauts to the Red Planet, several rockets filled with cargo and supplies will be deployed to await the crews' arrival. Expandable modules, which are lower-mass and lower-volume systems than metal habitats, can increase the efficiency of cargo shipments, possibly reducing the number of launches needed and overall mission costs," NASA reports.
Crews traveling to Mars will face a myriad of challenges and dangers during their journey, including powerful radiation, micrometeorites, and ultraviolet light unfiltered by the atmosphere of the Earth.
The BEAM module will remain attached to the ISS for two years as various crews subject the room to a series of tests. These will measure how well such expandable habitats are able to withstand the harsh conditions of outer space.