BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module)
NASA is investigating concepts for habitats that can keep astronauts healthy and productive during missions that take them farther from Earth than humans have ever gone before. Through public-private partnerships with U.S. industry, NASA is evaluating different habitation concepts that can sustain astronauts who are living and working in the harsh environment of deep space.
Expandable habitats are one such concept under consideration. To demonstrate expandable habitation capabilities, NASA attached the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station for a minimum two-year technology demonstration. The space station is the world’s leading laboratory for conducting cutting-edge technology research, development and testing in space to enable human and robotic exploration of destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including asteroids and Mars.
How does BEAM work?
In late May, with careful instructions from the ground, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams conducted the manual expansion of the module through a series of seconds-long valve openings that allowed space station air to enter and expand BEAM. After BEAM was fully expanded with low pressure, air tanks inside the BEAM were opened with an automated controller to fully pressurize BEAM to match station pressure. From its packed to expanded configurations, space science the module nearly doubled in length and increased by 40 percent in diameter. This capability to increase a spacecraft’s useable internal volume after launch offers a potentially significant advantage for mission planners who seek to reduce cargo volume, maximize payload space and efficiently package structures inside a launch vehicle fairing.
The NASA sensor suites inside BEAM help analyze module performance as it orbits Earth attached to a port on the space station’s Tranquility Node. Bulkhead accelerometers measured structural dynamics during deployment, wireless thermal sensors help assess the insulation performance of the fabric shell layers and metallic bulkheads, active and passive dosimeters measure radiation penetration, and Distributed Impact Detection System (DIDS) sensors detect and locate any space debris impacts on the BEAM exterior.
Expandable habitats require less payload volume on a rocket than traditional rigid structures, and expand after being deployed in space to potentially provide a comfortable area for astronauts to live and work inside. They also provide a varying degree of protection from solar and cosmic radiation, space debris, atomic oxygen, ultraviolet radiation and other elements in space that could be harmful to humans.
Launching on the eighth SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services mission, BEAM has been removed from the SpaceX Dragon capsule and attached to the Tranquility Node using the station’s robotic Canadarm2. After it has been installed, the BEAM was expanded for a planned two-year test period during which astronauts aboard the space station conduct a series of tests to validate overall performance and capability of expandable habitats. Space station crew members enter the BEAM three to four times a year for a few hours at a time. They take measurements and monitor its performance to help inform designs for future habitat systems. Learning how an expandable habitat performs in an orbital environment and how it reacts to temperature changes, radiation, micrometeoroids, and other forms of orbital debris will provide information to address key concerns about living and working in an expandable module in the harsh environment of space.
Following the approximate two-year test and validation period, astronauts will robotically jettison the BEAM from the space station. It space science will leave orbit to burn up during its descent through Earth’s atmospher as many cargo spacecraft do. Expandable modules, which require less volume on a rocket and could weigh less than traditional rigid structures, might increase the efficiency of cargo shipments, possibly reducing the number of launches needed and overall mission costs. This technology be also used in the future journey to Mars.
BEAM FACTS AND FIGURES:
- In its packed launch configuration, the module will measure 7.09 feet long and just under 7.75 feet in diameter.
- In its deployed, expanded configuration, the BEAM will measure 13.16 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter, providing 565 cubic feet of habitable volume.
- The BEAM’s mass is approximately 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg).
- The BEAM is composed of: two metal bulkheads, an aluminum structure, and multiple layers of soft fabric with spacing between layers, protecting an internal restraint layer and bladder system. It has no windows.
- The BEAM traveled to the space station in the unpressurized aft trunk of the Dragon capsule during the eighth SpaceX Commercial Resupply Mission.
- Robotics ground controllers will use the robotic Canadarm2 robotic arm to extract the BEAM from the Dragon capsule and attach it to the aft section of the Tranquility Node on the space station.
- The BEAM’s planned mission duration is two years.
- The BEAM is outfitted with various sensors and radiation monitors.
- It took two attempts to success in expanding of the BEAM, finally it was fully expanded on May 28, 2016.
Once it was confirmed that the module was maintaining pressure with no leaks during the week following deployment, Williams commenced the beginning of BEAM’s two-year demonstration when he entered the module for the first time on June 6, 2016.