An inflatable module that could serve as a future space hotel was delivered to the International Space Station by the SpaceX-operated Dragon capsule on Sunday.
The module, composed of multiple layers of highly resilient textiles, will be attached to the orbital outpost’s Harmony module this week before being inflated in late May.
Developed by US company Bigelow Aerospace, the habitat, dubbed BEAM (for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), will become a part of the space station for a period of two years, during which astronauts will be accessing its interior regularly to perform various measurements.
Bigelow hopes to use similar structures in future to build a commercial space station that would allow paying tourists, companies and private researchers to spend time in orbit.
The 1,400kg BEAM module, which arrived at the ISS as a package of 1.7 x 2.36m in size, will provide over 12 cubic metres of habitable volume once inflated into its 4 x 3.2m operating dimensions.
Their light weight, compared to traditional metallic structures used to make space stations, as well as the small transportation volume, make inflatables a promising technology. They could potentially revolutionise space habitation in future. For Nasa, using such Kevlar-based inflatable habitats would allow providing crews with more comfort during a possible mission to Mars.
The aim of the two-year Nasa experiment is to evaluate how the module performs in the extreme orbital environment, with massive temperature differences and exposure to very high levels of radiation. The module is also fitted with sensors to monitor micro-meteoroid impacts.
Bigelow, which aims to eventually deploy modules 20 times the size of BEAM in orbit, has based the technology on Nasa patents developed during the TransHab project, which was stopped by US Congress in 2000.
The company has previously launched two free-flying demonstration modules in 2006 and 2007 called Genesis I and Genesis II.
SpaceX delivered BEAM together with other scientific cargo as part of its eighth delivery run in the framework of the Commercial Resupply Service contract with Nasa.
It was only the second launch of the Dragon space capsule since a post-launch explosion of the carrier Falcon 9 rocket in June last year.
SpaceX has since equipped Dragon with software allowing the capsule to separate from the rocket in case of technical problems and parachute to safety with its precious cargo.
The Friday night launch marked a major success for SpaceX, which managed for the first time to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket in a controlled manner on a sea barge.
SpaceX, which strives to develop reusable rocket technology that would reduce the cost of space travel by a factor of 100, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, has previously managed to demonstrate the controlled landing on a launch pad on the ground in December last year. Four previous at-sea landing attempts had failed.
The reusable rocket booster will now undergo a series of ten test firings before being re-launched, probably on a commercial flight, as early as May, Musk said.
The ability to land on sea is essential, according to Musk, as the boosters may not be left with enough fuel after many launches to make it all the way to the launchpad.
SpaceX plans to start launching rockets about every two weeks from its sites in Florida and California later this year as the company tackles satellite-delivery orders worth some $10bn, company officials said.
Musk expects that every Falcon 9 booster will be able to undergo ten to twenty launches, possibly even 100 with some refurbishment.
Dragon will remain at the International Space Station until 11 May when it will be sent back to return some 1,500kg of scientific experiments to Earth.