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NASA has just unveiled the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an inflatable habitat that will be tested on the International Space Station starting in September. It could be used to protect astronauts on the surface of Mars in the future.
NASA signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow in 2012 to build the BEAM. It could be produced at a relatively low cost because fabric was used over metal.
The inflatable habitat measures 13 feet x 10 feet. It will give the astronauts an additional 565 cubic feet of volume. After it is attached to the ISS, astronauts will be able to use it as a lounge area and testing facility. The inflatable habitat weighs 3,000 pounds.
The BEAM has several layers of fabric to keep air trapped inside. It is coated with a layer of bulletproof Vectran, a liquid crystal polyacrylate superfiber that is twice as strong as Kevlar and is one of the most advanced fabrics ever made. It can withstand impacts from micrometeoroids that could damage the International Space Station’s aluminum hull. The module is inflammable. The walls of the BEAM have already undergone extensive testing.
The BEAM will be transported to the ISS on a SpaceX routine resupply mission on September 2. It will be attached to the ISS for two years. When its mission is complete, the BEAM will be ejected and will burn up when it reenters the atmosphere.
NASA scientists have long believed that inflatables would make the best habitats for humans on Mars because they weigh less than rigid habitats that need to be bolted together and take up less space on rockets. Two similar inflatable habitats are currently orbiting the Earth. They were launched in 2006 and 2007.
NASA intends to rely on American commercial partners for future space missions in the 21st century. This will include sending rockets into space and using new technologies, such as the BEAM. Bigelow Aerospace is currently working on the BA330, an inflatable module that will have 330 cubic meters of space.