Space & Innovation

Astronauts Occupy Space Station's Bubbly Habitat

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module may not have all the creature comforts of a real space habitat, but it's the first of its kind that could transform how we explore (and live in) space.

<p>Artist's impression of the BEAM module attached to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Bigelow Aerospace</p>

It's a bit like camping. In space. In a cold pressurized bubble.

OK, so it's not really like camping, but the International Space Station does now have a very different module unlike astronauts have ever seen before.

NEWS: Space Station Now Has Inflatable Digs

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or "BEAM", was successfully inflated last week and today the space station crew opened the hatch and stepped inside to check out their new digs. However, this module, designed and built by Nevada-based company Bigelow Aerospace, isn't designed as an orbital den or (sadly) microgravity games room, it's a prototype intended to test the long-term feasibility of inflatable space habitats.

And so far, so good. NASA astronaut Jeff Williams entered BEAM to install air ducts and check sensors, reporting that it was "in pristine condition." When his checks were done, the hatch was closed and sealed.

The BEAM module undergoing inflation on on May 28. | NASA TV

At one end of the 4 meter (13 feet) long module, Mission Control said the temperature was registering a chilly 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius), but that was to be expected. According to the Associated Press, despite the cold, Williams reported no trace of condensation on BEAM's silver walls.

ANALYSIS: NASA's Original Inflatable Space Station

More sensors are going to be installed inside the dark module over the coming days and mission managers expect just six or seven entries per year, and the hatch will be sealed after each short visit. These tests are intended to understand the viability of inflatable habitats in space and how they respond to long-duration exposure to extreme temperature fluctuations. One of the more pressing issues is to understand how much protection they will provide astronauts from space radiation and possible space debris.

Astronaut Jeff Williams works inside the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. | NASA TV

Although this is the first "human rated" inflatable habitat to be expanded in space, Bigelow Aerospace has flown two unmanned test vehicles, Genesis I and II. The expandable habitat technology was originally conceived by NASA in the 1990's as part of the TransHab project, but due to delays and budgetary issues, the program was canceled. Bigelow picked up where NASA left off and now hopes to develop space habitats for use in orbit, on the moon and Mars.

WATCH VIDEO: Why NASA Is Using Inflatable Spacecraft