With plans to colonize Mars starting to become a reality, NASA scientists and their partners in the private industry are now looking to cut costs of building space habitats by replacing the typical rigid metal structures with expandable ones.
Building structures in space involves a different set of challenges compared to those experienced by construction teams on Earth. Mission planners always have to factor in the expenses of sending building supplies into space, and the heavier the materials are the more costly they are to transport.
Building the International Space Station (ISS), for example, took more than $100 billion and 115 space flights in the 1990s, according to NASA.
Those who built the ISS only had to transport materials to the Earth's low orbit, which is just about 250 miles from the planet's surface. Imagine how much it would cost to send materials to places as far as Mars.
To solve this dilemma, NASA scientists have begun exploring the possibility of building smaller space habitats made of lighter materials to help make mission expenses more manageable. One of these involves the use of expandable materials sent into space deflated to make them easier to transport, and then inflated once they reach their destination.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is one such expandable habitat currently being developed by Bigelow Aerospace in partnership with NASA. A prototype of the space habitat has already been sent and attached to the ISS for the cost of only $17.8 million.
The BEAM unit is expected to provide the ISS crew with additional space from which they can experience what it's like to live in such an inflatable habitat. NASA will monitor the structural integrity of the unit for the next two years to find out if it could be a viable option to replace the metal structures the space agency typically use.
While Bigelow Aerospace founder Robert Bigelow remains tight-lipped regarding the material they used to build the BEAM, he did reveal that they include several layers of high grade synthetic fibers that were similar to Kevlar.
The ISS crew will enter the BEAM unit every few months to closely monitor its environment, particularly the pressure, temperature and radiation levels inside the structure. If the expandable habitat proves to be a success, it could lead to the creation of similar units that would be used on space missions in the future.