Space Companies Promise Full Inflatable Space Stations in Orbit by 2020

Image by Bigelow
Image by Bigelow

Over the weekend, SpaceX delivered the International Space Station’s first inflatable module—but there’s more where that came from. United Launch Alliance and Bigelow have announced that they plan to put entire inflatable space stations into orbit by as soon as 2020.

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The pair announced last night that they hope to launch a 12,000-cubic foot inflatable space station—called B330—aboard the ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket within the next four years. That’s about 30 percent of the size of the ISS. It will, they claim, “support zero-gravity research including scientific missions and manufacturing processes,” but also add that it could have “potential as a destination for space tourism and a craft for missions destined for the Moon and Mars.”

Bigelow has already made prototypes of these kinds of inflatable space structures, and in fact made the one that arrived at the ISS over the weekend, which is known as BEAM. They’re constructed of strong, kevlar-like materials—hopefully strong enough to withstand space junk—and are inflated upon arrival. The benefit is obvious: The structures are much smaller and lighter than the usual space station modules that get fired into space.

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It’s not yet clear who might use the B330 when it’s in space. “We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS),” explained Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, in a press release. “The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.”

We’ll have to wait and see if NASA wants to play ball.

[PR News Wire and Reuters via Engadget]

Contributing Editor at Gizmodo. An ex-engineer writing about science and technology.

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DISCUSSION

thecuriosityrover
TheCuriosityRover

Exciting news, this!

“B330—aboard the ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket within the next four years. That’s about 30 percent of the size of the ISS”

Of course that’s just the first BA330 module that is the about 1/3 the volume of the ISS. It’s based on the cancelled Transhab ISS module design that Bigelow licensed from NASA. BA330 modules could be added to the ISS, or linked together as in the illustration which shows a pair of them.

In just three launches, Bigelow and ULA could theoretically construct a station matching the internal volume of the ISS which took 40 launches. That’s the beauty of the expanding architecture, that and its rugged resilience designed to make micrometeors bounce off like a bullet proof vest.

“Bigelow has already made prototypes of these kinds of inflatable space structures, and in fact made the one that arrived at the ISS over the weekend”

Not only has the BEAM just made it to the ISS, but Bigelow already has two prototype station modules in orbit. They are unmanned and are a little bit smaller than BEAM, but they’ve been able to test the long-term durability of the structures, the stabilization systems and electronics. Genesis I (pictured below) has been in orbit since 2006 and Genesis II since 2007.

“It’s not yet clear who might use the B330 when it’s in space.”

Shortly before Michael Suffredini stepped down as ISS director to be replaced by Kirk Shireman, he said he expects that when commercial stations come on line NASA will probably get involved, but will not be the anchor tenant. He said that with commercial stations available that will off-load the commercial oriented research that’s now being done on the ISS, freeing the ISS crew do do more pure science oriented research.