Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Bigelow Aerospace

There are a few companies out there that are taking on the goal of creating space habitats for tourism purposes, but none of them are as promising as Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow Aerospace was founded in 1999 by Robert Bigelow. The company purchased rights from NASA to technologies that had been researched for NASA's canceled Translab program. The particular technologies they were interested in were designs for inflatable space station modules. Bigelow Aerospace took these designs and ran with them, quickly beginning design and production of prototype modules based on the technology.

Inflatable technology has several advantages. The modules are launched in a compressed state, allowing for a launch vehicle's typically volume-limited design. After the vehicle reaches orbit and the module has separated, it is inflated with breathable air, creating a much larger orbital habitat. The use of a flexible outer shell also makes the module much lighter then conventional metal habitation modules.

Concern has been raised about the prospect of meteorite impacts potentially puncturing the modules' walls and causing them to deflate. However, those concerns have been at least somewhat discouraged by the fact that the modules' walls are made of several layers of vectran, a material twice as tough as kevlar. If you shot the walls, you would have to dodge the ricochet. Also, a meteor impacting a flexible surface that was tough enough would theoretically bounce off where it might damage a rigid surface, due to the fact that the energy would largely be transferred back to the meteor.

On July 12, 2006, Bigelow Aerospace successfully launched the Genisis I, a 3000 lb, 15 foot prototype module. After achieving orbit, it successfully inflated and deployed its solar panels, and it orbits the Earth to this day. Bigelow hopes to keep it operating for at least another three years. Just a year later, on June 28, 2007, Bigelow launched Genisis II, their second prototype. Genisis II is similar to Genisis I, except that it contains twice as many cameras and a more complex array of sensors and other devices. Also, Genisis II contains an array of random items sent in by interested members of the public for Bigelow's "Fly Your Stuff" program.

Initially, Bigelow had plans to launch a larger prototype craft called the Galaxy, but the success of Genisis was so great, and launch costs are increasing so much, that they canceled the Galaxy program and are skipping to their full-size, human-habitable Sundancer prototype, to launch between 2010 and 2012. The speculation is that the Sundancer will be launched on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, but this hasn't been confirmed. If the launch and deployment of the Sundancer is successful, crew may be transported to it to further test its capabilities. Following that will be the launch of the first BA 330 (the first full-scale, production module) from 2012-2014.

And after that, a space hotel becomes a significant possibility. And remains an awesome possibility.

Progress: 3.24%  Flight Time: 0:04:51

No comments: