LAS VEGAS, Nevada - It's a new form of "high stakes" from this gambling city--a privately-funded and designed expandable space module now circles the Earth.
Bigelow Aerospace here is the odds-on-favorite to create a low-cost, low Earth orbit space complex that is accessible to the commercial sector. That goal has been bolstered by the success of their Genesis-1 expandable module, lofted into space July 12 courtesy of a converted Cold War rocket--the Ukrainian-built Dnepr booster provided by ISC Kosmotras.
Even as Genesis-1 circles the Earth, work is already underway for a Genesis-2 launch before year's end. That flight is expected to lead six months later to lofting a larger, more sophisticated module called Galaxy.
Twice the size of the Genesis-1 now in space, Galaxy will offer 23 cubic meters of interior volume, carry higher-fidelity systems, and is more in a direct path to Bigelow's full-scale kind of thinking in terms of ever-larger modules.
"I'm on Cloud 9 over this success," said space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace during a press conference held yesterday on the firm's sprawling 50-acre, ultra-secure facility.
So far, some $75 million has been spent on the company's progress. Bigelow said they are preparing a volley of flights to throw at the problem of expandable module development and use, not only for low Earth orbit, but also for utilization on the Moon and Mars.
As Genesis-1 flew overhead during the press conference, Bigelow told SPACE.com that he was the Doubting Thomas of the company--others on the project were more optimistic.
"Secretly, I felt good 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 I thought 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 and every time ... I don't think any of us would buy off on that."
Post-launch data of Genesis-1 has now been analyzed, showing that the module has 7 to 13 years of lifetime in orbit, said Eric Haakonstad, Genesis program manager. "We are optimistic that we're going to have quite a long time to collect, not just initial performance data, but long-term data as well," he told SPACE.com.
Haakonstad said the robustness of the Genesis-1 systems are to be closely watched--internal and external power hardware, communications systems, as well as the integrity of the module's hull structure.
"We want to make sure that it just doesn't just work for the first month, the first week ... but it works two years, three years from now, reliably," Haakonstad noted. Typical of space systems, he added, the weakest link is the power system "and that's no different here."
"What we're trying to do with this first spacecraft is draw attention to our second spacecraft," Haakonstad explained. 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 a modest fee onboard the Genesis-2.
As an Earth orbiting module that will circle for years--objects flown are on a one-way trip.
Here at the Bigelow Aerospace control center, huge screens of data and images from Genesis-1 are displayed. To date, some 500 images have been channeled down from the orbiting spacecraft.
There is 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 eight company-made solar wings deployed, said Mark Pierson, Bigelow Aerospace manager for vehicle integration and testing.
Once in orbit, Genesis-1 took all of 10 minutes to successfully expand to 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter, Pierson told SPACE.com. "The systems are at 100 percent. Everything is working. It's awesome and we're thrilled."
The Genesis-1 is in a slow tumble as it orbits Earth.
That has complicated the snagging of downlink imagery and other data. That tumble issue is expected to dampen out in few weeks, enabling ground operators to get onboard antennas better pointed to upgrade the download of information, as well as fine-tune internal and external cameras, Pierson said.
Frequent launch, low-risk approach
Data-gathering stations in both Hawaii and Alaska are coming online in the near future. They will augment the ability of ground control to monitor Bigelow Aerospace orbiting modules.
Genesis-1 is outfitted with 6 interior and 7 exterior cameras. Genesis-2 will have somewhere 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 public viewing balcony that can support 300 onlookers, he told SPACE.com, to keep vigil on the firm's multiple modules as they fly around Earth.
"The amount 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 slated within the next couple of weeks, he said.
"We're trying to take a frequent launch ... low-risk approach ... not putting all of our eggs into one basket," Haakonstad said.
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