The International Space Station (ISS) grew by 16m3 on Saturday as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was successfully inflated at the second attempt.
Success: The ISS gains 16m3. Pic: NASA TV
NASA Astronaut Jeff Williams spent around seven hours gradually introducing air from the ISS into BEAM in short bursts, "as flight controllers carefully monitored the module’s internal pressure".
While BEAM has its own onboard oxygen cylinders, these were only deployed after inflation to "pressurize the module", NASA explains.
A first pop at engorgement ended in disappointment last week, with BEAM expanding just a few inches. Bigelow Aerospace explained: "The BEAM spacecraft has been in a packed state for a significantly longer time than expected. It has undergone a tremendous squeeze for over 15 months, which is 10 months longer than planned. Therefore, there is a potential for the behavior of the materials that make up the outside of the spacecraft to act differently than expected."
The company's aerospace project manager, Lisa Kauke, said: "When the fabric is compressed it has memory of its shape and it takes time for materials to relax and come back from its uncompressed state. We are confident nothing is wrong with the BEAM."
Following leak checks, Jeff Williams will enter the habitat in about week's time. Astronauts will then follow suit several times a year, as NASA and Bigelow assess how it performs in the rigours of space over the next two years.
BEAM attached to the ISS's Tranquility module. Pic: NASA
While there are no immediate plans to take advantage of BEAM's extra space, NASA hasn't ruled out "using the module to house equipment or to give the astronauts a new playroom later on", as we noted last week.
Bigelow's long-term ambitions are to construct a large scale inflatable habitat to "support zero-gravity research including scientific missions, manufacturing processes, a destination for space tourism and a craft for missions destined for the Moon and Mars". ®