LAS VEGAS, Nevada- It's a new form of "high stakes" from this gambling city--a privately-fundedand designed expandable space module now circles the Earth.
BigelowAerospace here is the odds-on-favorite to create a low-cost, low Earth orbitspace complex that is accessible to the commercial sector. That goal has beenbolstered by the success of their Genesis-1expandable module, lofted into space July 12 courtesy of a converted ColdWar rocket--the Ukrainian-built Dnepr booster provided by ISC Kosmotras.
Evenas Genesis-1 circles the Earth, work is already underway for a Genesis-2 launchbefore year's end. That flight is expected to lead six months later to loftinga larger, more sophisticated module called Galaxy.
Twicethe size of the Genesis-1 now in space, Galaxy will offer 23 cubic meters ofinterior volume, carry higher-fidelity systems, and is more in a direct pathto Bigelow's full-scale kind of thinking in terms of ever-larger modules.
"I'mon Cloud 9 over this success," said space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, founderand president of Bigelow Aerospace during a press conference held yesterday onthe firm's sprawling 50-acre, ultra-secure facility.
Sofar, some $75 million has been spent on the company's progress. Bigelow saidthey are preparing a volley of flights to throw at the problem of expandablemodule development and use, not only for low Earth orbit, but also forutilization on the Moon and Mars.
AsGenesis-1 flew overhead during the press conference, Bigelow told SPACE.comthat he was the Doubting Thomas of the company--others on the project were moreoptimistic.
"Secretly, I feltgood about our people, our team ... and I knew that our contractors were good.Yes, you kind of have to prepare yourself maybe for failure. But deep inside Ithought there was a chance that we were going to make it," Bigelow explained."We are not under any illusion that we'll have this kind of success each andevery time ... I don't think any of us would buy off on that."
Post-launchdata of Genesis-1 has now been analyzed, showing that the module has 7 to 13years of lifetime in orbit, said Eric Haakonstad, Genesis program manager. "We are optimisticthat we're going to have quite a long time to collect, not just initialperformance data, but long-term data as well," he told SPACE.com.
Haakonstad said therobustness of the Genesis-1 systems are to be closely watched--internal andexternal power hardware, communications systems, as well as the integrity ofthe module's hull structure.
"Wewant to make sure that it just doesn't just work for the first month, the firstweek ... but it works two years, three years from now, reliably," Haakonstad noted. Typical of spacesystems, he added, the weakest link is the power system "and that's nodifferent here."
"Whatwe're trying to do with this first spacecraft is draw attention to our secondspacecraft," Haakonstadexplained. The public can become directly involved through a "Fly Your Stuff"program (http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/fly_stuff/)where personal mementoes, photographs, or other items will be flown for amodest fee onboard the Genesis-2.
Asan Earth orbiting module that will circle for years--objects flown are on aone-way trip.
Hereat the Bigelow Aerospace control center, huge screens of data and images fromGenesis-1 are displayed. To date, some 500 images have been channeled down fromthe orbiting spacecraft.
Thereis limited contact with Genesis-1--two passes a day that are relatively short.Ground controllers monitor the overall health of the vessel outfitted with its eightcompany-made solar wings deployed, said Mark Pierson, Bigelow Aerospace managerfor vehicle integration and testing.
Oncein orbit, Genesis-1 took all of 10 minutes to successfully expand to 8 feet (2.4meters) in diameter, Pierson told SPACE.com. "The systems are at 100percent. Everything is working. It's awesome and we're thrilled."
TheGenesis-1 is in a slow tumble as it orbits Earth.
Thathas complicated the snagging of downlink imagery and other data. That tumble issueis expected to dampen out in few weeks, enabling ground operators to getonboard antennas better pointed to upgrade the download of information, as wellas fine-tune internal and external cameras, Pierson said.
Frequent launch, low-risk approach
Data-gatheringstations in both Hawaii and Alaska are coming online in the near future. Theywill augment the ability of ground control to monitor Bigelow Aerospaceorbiting modules.
Genesis-1is outfitted with 6 interior and 7 exterior cameras. Genesis-2 will havesomewhere on the neighborhood of 18 cameras. Galaxy is to utilize 32 cameras,Bigelow said. Also in the works is building a mega-control center and publicviewing balcony that can support 300 onlookers, he told SPACE.com, tokeep vigil on the firm's multiple modules as they fly around Earth.
"Theamount of success on the first launch was probably the biggest surprise,"admitted
Haakonstad.Work is underway on Genesis-2 with integration of its various components slatedwithin the next couple of weeks, he said.
"We'retrying to take a frequent launch ... low-risk approach ... not putting all of oureggs into one basket," Haakonstad said.
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