Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bigelow and ULA Deal: Space Real Estate For Sale!

The Shape of things to come: A Bigelow B330 station in orbit with commercial capsule and solar powering unit attached. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.

This is a good week. And for space enthusiasts, our tomorrows are looking brighter! On April 11, Bigelow Aerospace (producer of the inflatable space module idea) and ULA (United Launch Alliance, the corporation that launches the Atlas V rocket and payloads) jointly announced their plan to launch into Earth orbit two of Bigelow's giant B330 inflatable space stations. The modules would be launched aboard the reliable Atlas V rockets, and provide, for the first time, a commercial (non-governmental) foothold in low Earth Orbit that could be rented by corporations or countries for space research or space tourism.

Artist's rendition of how the BEAM will look when attached to the ISS. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
Currently, NASA is about to test the first ever Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) when it removes the collapsed module from the recently arrived SpaceX Dragon cargo ship, and attach it to the U.S.-built Tranquility module on the ISS. It will be deployed, then studied for a two-year experiment that will help convince NASA engineers of the viability of using the expandable modules for future space station design. To this date, Bigelow has already had two expandable test units launched into free-floating orbits for testing, and they worked excellently.

Cut-away view of the inside of the B330 Module. The size advantage is obvious. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
 Bigelow calls the B330 "a game changer," and it is. The 330 refers to 330 square feet of room inside the module. It has a central, or core unit that includes the electronics and equipment. The outside walls of the module are expanded out from the core, and are made of up to 36 layers of vectran, which is far stronger than kevlar and more flexible. The outer layers would provide better protection from radiation and micrometeroid strikes than the current walls of space station modules. With 330 square feet, a B330 has almost three times the space of the US Destiny module on the ISS. It will be fitted with a docking port compatible with the different commercial spacecraft under development as well as NASA's Orion and the Russian Soyuz.

NASA's assistant director Lori Garver inside a mock-up of a Bigelow module gives an idea of the spaciousness inside the module. Credit: NASA.

Expanded arrangement showing how the B330 would be transported aboard the Atlas V rocket. Credit: ULA.
To get the B330s into space, ULA plans to use the Atlas V rocket with its large payload version with expanded fairings to protect the large B330 core assembly. For extra propulsion, the rocket would be assisted with 5 solid rocket boosters. With these two facilities in space, ULA predicts additional flights when its Atlas rockets are used for launching commercial capsules (such as the Boeing CST100) to dock with the modules.

Expanded space station proposal beyond the B330.
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
The Bigelow/ULA plan schedules these modules to be placed in Low Earth Orbit in 2020. Current NASA plans suggest that the ISS project would be terminated by 2024. The ability to install a B330 onto the ISS has been brought up as a way to extend the life of the station and open it to a greater use by other corporations and other countries' space programs. With two additional stations in orbit, we will finally have additional destinations for commercial programs besides a restricted, government-controlled space laboratory. Whether for business use or as a "space hotel" for space tourism programs, the B330s will provide the first available "real estate" to be purchased in orbit. I have always said that our space programs will be very limited until someone figures a way to make money in space. Just like the birth of aviation, mere flights for the experience were not enough to provide room for the development of airlines and airliners; people wanted a place to go to and visit.

Another space station concept. Add a propulsion module and it could fly to Mars. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
Bigelow modules also offer opportunities for human exploration of the solar system. No one would want to fly in a cramped Orion capsule all the way to Mars or beyond. But add some Bigelow modules, and you'll have the space you need to live in on those long journeys. There are even plans for placing variants of the modules on the lunar surface to create the first lunar permanent base.

Orbiting the Moon: Two B330 modules with a couple of Orion capsules and some power units attached. Our first Lunar station in orbit? Credit: Bigelow Aerospace.
The success of Bigelow module structures will make an expansion of the space program achievable and more affordable. One can easily imagine how popular it will be to have a space hotel in orbit of the Moon with a short 2-day flight to the station and a 2-day return. Yes sir, space travel is about to get A LOT more interesting!

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