A week after SpaceX successfully completed its cargo re-supply mission to the International Space Station, astronauts aboard the ISS will deploy a first-of-a-kind space module and test its capabilities starting this weekend.
Known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), the space habitat is a giant inflatable module poised to become the future home of astronauts who will live on Mars someday.
On April 16, ISS astronauts will allot four hours in the installation of BEAM, attaching the giant fabric room to the space station's tranquility module, NASA said.
The Future Of BEAM
Astronauts will step inside BEAM for the first time sometime next month.
In the next two years, they will go into the module for several hours at a time and investigate conditions inside the fabric room.
During this time, NASA plans to keep the airlock between the ISS and BEAM closed. If the space module is punctured, BEAM will slowly compress to make sure that it doesn't pose any harm to the ISS.
Additionally, sensors inside the space module will monitor radiation and temperature changes, as well as how BEAM fares against possible orbital debris.
By the end of May, BEAM will have expanded to almost five times its compressed size.
From its current size of 7 feet (2.13 meters) in diameter and 8 feet (2.44 meters) in length, it will stretch to 10 feet (3.04 meters) in diameter and 13 feet (3.96 meters) in length, the agency explained in a blog post.
NASA said astronauts who will travel to Mars and beyond will need durable, easy-to-transport habitats. The concept of inflatable technology was first considered by NASA in the 1990s. It was then brought to life by Bigelow Aerospace.
Scientists believe that BEAM is effective because it could easily be packed up after it is used. They believe BEAM is a practical alternative to conventional space habitats.
"It's a big step for us, because inflatables can be a big multiplier for us as we move further out into space," said Mark Geyer of Johnson Space Center.
What's more, BEAM could potentially be turned into space hotels for private customers that are more affordable and lighter, experts added.
The space module was carried to the ISS by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket during last week's mission.