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.
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.