The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will stay attached to the International Space Station through at least 2020, NASA announced yesterday (Dec. 4).
BEAM, which is owned by the Las Vegas-based company Bigelow Aerospace, launched toward the orbiting lab in compact form aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule in April 2016. It was attached and expanded shortly thereafter, to test the performance of such inflatable habitats — which can provide more internal volume per unit launch mass than traditional metallic modules — in the space environment.
That work was originally supposed to last for two years, after which BEAM would be jettisoned and, eventually, fall back to Earth and die a fiery death in the atmosphere. But NASA has now signed a new contract with Bigelow to support BEAM's stay at the station for at least three more years, with two additional one-year extension options beyond that. [An Inflatable Space Room: BEAM in Pictures]
"Since the initial expansion, a suite of sensors installed by the crew automatically take measurements and monitor BEAM’s performance to help inform designs for future habitat systems," NASA officials wrote in a statement yesterday. "This extension will deepen NASA's understanding of expandable space systems by making the BEAM a more operational element of the space station to be actively used in storage and crew operations."
The new contract began last month, NASA officials said.
Bigelow Aerospace is getting something out of this partnership as well — the chance to showcase expandable habitats' capabilities for future commercial use. The company aims to help establish outposts in Earth orbit and in deep space, such as the surface of the moon.
NASA also plans to take advantage of the BEAM extension for a more prosaic use: storage. Space station crewmembers have already removed some of the hardware used for the habitat's expansion, freeing up more space. BEAM can now hold up to 130 "cargo transfer bags," NASA officials said.
In its expanded form, BEAM measures 13.16 feet long by 10.5 feet wide (4.0 by 3.2 meters) and provides 565 cubic feet (16 cubic m) of internal volume. (In its launch configuration, the habitat was 7.09 feet long by 7.75 feet, or 2.2 by 2.4 m.)
BEAM isn't the first Bigelow habitat to get an in-space test. The company launched two free-flying expandables, known as Genesis I and Genesis II, to Earth orbit in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Both habitats performed very well, company representatives have said.