Sierra Space bursts full-scale inflatable space habitat module

Pop goes the test article. As planned

Sierra Space has inflated a full-sized test article of its Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) habitat beyond bursting point to demonstrate how the module might behave in the harsh environment of space.

The Ultimate Burst Pressure (UBP) test, required inflating the module until it popped, which happened at 77 psi, a good 27 per cent above NASA's recommended level of 60.8 psi. The NASA figure is based on the usual maximum operating pressure of 15.2 psi multiplied by a safety factor of four.

Size-wise, the test article was a third of the volume of the entire International Space Station (ISS) and would fit into a standard five-meter rocket fairing for launch. A 1,400 cubic meter version, packed into a seven-meter rocket fairing – such as the one proposed by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin for its New Glenn rocket – would surpass the size of the ISS in a single launch.

The ISS is no stranger to inflatable modules – the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was attached to the outpost in 2016 and is currently serving as storage. However, this latest example on blow-up modules is quite a bit larger.

The team has plans for a series of tests in 2024, both at sub- and full-scale, including development of the primary atmospheric barrier and micrometeoroid orbital debris layers. The company plans to deploy its technology in collaboration with Blue Origin on Orbital Reef, a proposed commercial space station in low Earth orbit.

The UBP test focused on the LIFE habitat pressure shell, which includes Vectran straps. According to Sierra Space, "Vectran is stronger than steel when inflated on-orbit and provides high margins of safety under pressure."

The test didn't go entirely to plan – shortly after passing NASA's recommended psi, a leak was noted and eventually traced to a problematic vent valve rather than the article itself. Problem fixed, the team carried on with the inflation until the test article finally burst.

Youtube Video

Sierra Space is also notable for its Dream Chaser spacecraft, a winged freighter capable of delivering cargo to and from the ISS and returning to Earth using a runway. The first vehicle, Tenacity, will be launched atop a Vulcan Centaur rocket. The maiden launch is currently scheduled for later this year.

Sierra Space's CEO, Tom Vice, said, "We're not a company that is trying to escape Earth; we're not a company that thinks that we ought to leave the planet. We're a company that is committed to this home and making it better."

We can't imagine what other company he might be thinking of. ®

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