First attempt to deploy inflatable habitat on space station is a no-go

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The still unexpanded BEAM module attached to the ISS(Credit: NASA TV)

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The first attempt to inflate the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) attached to the International Space Station (ISS) ended in failure today as astronauts and engineers assess the situation. At 6:10 am EDT, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams partially inflated the experimental habitat module docked to the station's' Tranquility module in what should have been 45-minute operation, but despite several hours of work, the balloon-like fabric only expanded a few inches instead of the planned several feet.

According to NASA, though BEAM has an automatic inflation system, the initial plan was for Williams to manually expand the module by slowly introducing air at low pressure in increments of one to five seconds over a 45-minute period. At the end of this, the module should have reached a pressure of 0.4 PSI as it expanded to a volume of 565 ft3 (16 m3). If no anomalies occurred, more air would have been introduced until the pressure equaled that inside the station.

The timing of the inflation maneuver was chosen because of the need for both daylight and video links with mission control to monitor operations. Unfortunately, it was clear by the time the ISS reached its next video blackout window that the BEAM was not inflating according to predictions, as it refused to expand more than a small amount.

BEAM x-ray view(Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

The BEAM was delivered to the ISS by an unmanned Dragon cargo ship on April 16. After being transferred to the station using a robotic arm, Williams opened the inner connecting hatch, carried out leak tests and installed hardware to monitor the expansion. Then the restraining straps holding the deflated module were severed using pyrotechnic charges. A second set of attenuation straps keep the fabric under control under pressurization causes them to separate.

Built by Bigelow Aerospace, the BEAM is a prototype of a new class of habitat modules that can be transported into space while taking up less space in the cargo ship carrying it. Once properly inflated, the module will be monitored for about a week, when the module will be opened and the astronauts will carry out the first of several inspections over the next two years. During this time, the crew will observe how well BEAM stands up to solar radiation, space debris, and temperature extremes.

NASA says that the space agency is working with engineers from Bigelow to determine the cause of the malfunction and how or if it can be corrected.

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