The International Space Station (ISS) received an exciting renovation today as the experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was successfully attached to the Tranquility module. Beginning at 2:15 am EDT, controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston used one of the station's robotic arms to remove the 1,400-kg (3,086-lb) inflatable habitat module from the depressurized trunk of the unmanned Dragon cargo ship, which docked with the ISS on April 11. Over a four-hour period, the deflated BEAM was guided to Tranquility's aft assembly port, where station astronauts attached it using common berthing mechanism controls at 5:36 am EDT.

The first human-rated inflatable structure to fly in space, the BEAM is intended to test the feasibility of expandable module technology, which could provide living and working areas for astronauts while reducing launch costs. It was flown to the ISS aboard the Dragon, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40 on April 8.

In May, a pressurization system will be activated to use air stored within the fabric module to inflate it to a length of four m (13 ft) and a diameter of 3.23 m (10.6 ft). A week later, astronauts will enter it briefly for the first time for inspection. Over the course of two years, the crews will assess its structural stability, leak rate, and ability to withstand radiation and temperature variations. At the end of the test period, the module will be jettisoned from the ISS and burn up on re-entry.

Artist’s concept of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility module and inflated(Credit: NASA/Bigelow Aerospace)

Meanwhile back on Earth, the maker of the BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace, has entered into a partnership with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to develop and launch a new class of inflatable space habitats with the first scheduled to lift off in 2020. Using ULA's Atlas V rocket, the partners will send up modules based on the larger B330 inflatable module with a volume of 330 m3 (approx. 12,000 ft3).

Bigelow says that a module may be attached to the ISS, which will increase the station's volume by 30 percent and act as a multipurpose testbed for zero-gravity research and manufacturing. In addition, the modules could be used as units of a space hotel for tourists or as free-floating habitats for private companies.

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