Space

BEAM's first year on ISS expands potential of inflatable space habitats

BEAM's first year on ISS expan...
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a prototype inflatable space station module,  has now been attached to the ISS for a year
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a prototype inflatable space station module,  has now been attached to the ISS for a year
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Astronauts have started a new radiation test in the BEAM, putting a semi-spherical 3D printed shield over one of two radiation sensors
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Astronauts have started a new radiation test in the BEAM, putting a semi-spherical 3D printed shield over one of two radiation sensors
NASA's Peggy Whitson and ESA's Thomas Pesquet, installing sensors inside BEAM
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NASA's Peggy Whitson and ESA's Thomas Pesquet, installing sensors inside BEAM
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a prototype inflatable space station module,  has now been attached to the ISS for a year
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The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a prototype inflatable space station module,  has now been attached to the ISS for a year

Blasting equipment into space is a costly venture, so finding ways to reduce weight and size is crucial. Last year, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was deployed to the International Space Station (ISS) to test how an inflatable habitat stands up to the harsh environment of space. Now, one year on, NASA has reported its initial findings.

Developed by Bigelow Aerospace and NASA, the BEAM was attached to the ISS on April 16 last year. After a false start, it was fully inflated on May 28 and astronauts entered it for the first time on June 6. Over its two-year lifespan, astronauts will assess how well this softer structure stands up against radiation, micrometeoroid impacts and microbial growth, to help inform designs for future deep space missions. When it's all over, the module will be jettisoned from the station to burn up as it reenters Earth's atmosphere.

The project is currently at the halfway point, and so far, the future of inflatable habitats looks promising. Since it was first expanded, astronauts have entered the BEAM nine times to collect air and surface samples of microbes and swap out radiation monitors, which were then sent back to Earth to be studied. So far, the prototype has performed well: dose rates of Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR) are about on par with other, more rigid space station modules, and the external walls have managed to keep debris from penetrating through, despite multiple possible collisions with micrometeoroids.

Astronauts have started a new radiation test in the BEAM, putting a semi-spherical 3D printed shield over one of two radiation sensors
Astronauts have started a new radiation test in the BEAM, putting a semi-spherical 3D printed shield over one of two radiation sensors

Since late April, the researchers have been conducting a more detailed radiation experiment. Using the specially designed 3D printer onboard, the space station crew printed a half-sphere shield and installed it over one of the two Radiation Environment Monitors in the BEAM.

The idea is to compare how well the shield performs at blocking radiation compared to the unshielded sensor, and over the coming months, new, thicker shields will be tested too. The first is just 1.1 mm (0.04 in) thick, but the second will be 3.3 mm (0.13 in), with thickness increasing to 10 mm (0.4 in) for the third test.

Ultimately, the results of the BEAM project will guide NASA and other organizations in developing modules that are more protective and compact, for future deep space exploration and an eventual manned mission to Mars.

Source: NASA

3 comments
Stephen N Russell
Bet it stays longer or add another module for Hab crew use alone. Mass produce Habs.
Derek Howe
I think space stations will always exist, because they play an important role in studding things in zero g. But I would not fund the ISS beyond the current 2024 plans. It should be left to fall back to earth (mostly burning up in the atmosphere). It should be replaced with the Bigelow Olympus inflatable space station, That behemoth will require a behemoth of a rocket...which should exist by then.
jade_goat
This is good stuff! I'm a big fan of the Bigelow approach to things, with their inflatable habitats. I would *love* to see a dozen or so of their planned "Olympus" modules on the moon. In my opinion, we should be going back to the moon *before* we go to Mars and I see these habitats as being a key part of that.