A textile-based inflatable module will be attached to the International Space Station for two years

Nasa inflates Bigelow space station module

Nasa has started the process of inflating a textile-based space station module that will test technologies for future space travel.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) made of multiple layers of highly resilient textiles was delivered to the space station in April. On Thursday morning Nasa astronaut Jeffrey Williams opened a valve to let air slowly fill the module, which originally reached the station as a rather compact package compared to traditional aluminium-based modules. Only 1.7 by 2.36m in its transport configuration, the structure by Bigelow Aerospace, will provide 4 by 3.2m of usable space once inflated.

Bigelow hopes to use similar technology in future to build a commercial space hotel, which would be much simpler to construct and deliver into space compared to the kind of bulky rigid structures comprising the International Space Station.

The habitat was only partially inflated on Thursday, possibly due to technical complications. According to Nasa, it only expanded by a few inches in both length and diameter.

Nasa said the process will be continued on Friday after ground-based controllers review available data.

Astronauts are expected to enter the module next week at the earliest. That should give UK astronaut Tim Peake an opportunity to experience the innovative structure first hand as his return to Earth has recently been postponed by two weeks, to 18 June.

Nasa, which hopes to use inflatable structures in a future mission to Mars and other deep-space destinations, has invested $17.8m (£12.1m) into the project.

BEAM will stay attached to the space station’s Tranquility module until 2018. The experiment will evaluate how well the Kevlar-based technology withstands the extreme orbital environment, with massive temperature differences, exposure to high levels of radiation and occasional meteorite hits.

Bigelow, which aims to eventually deploy modules 20 times the size of BEAM, has based the technology on Nasa patents developed during the TransHab project, which was stopped by US Congress in 2000.

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