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NASA used robot arm to unpack expandable module

17 April, 2016

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Cape Canaveral: A NASA ground-control team on Saturday used a robot arm to unpack an expandable module and attached it to the International Space Station, setting the stage for a novel test of a habitat for astronauts, researchers and even tourists.

The 3,100-pound (1,400 kilogrammes) module, manufactured and owned by Bigelow Aerospace was launched aboard at SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule that reached the station on Sunday.

The US space agency said during a live broadcast on NASA TV that the module was attached to the station at 5:36 am EDT as the station flew about 250 miles (400 kilometres) above earth. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is scheduled to be inflated with air in late May, beginning a two-year experiment to see how it holds up in the harsh environment of space.

The officials with NASA and Bigelow Aerospace said before the April 8 launch that it is made of impact-resistant, Kevlar-like materials and other fabrics, the lightweight habitats could save millions of dollars in its launch costs compared with metal modules. They may also offer better radiation protection for astronauts.

Bigelow, based in North Las Vegas, Nevada tested two unmanned prototypes a decade ago but BEAM is its first inflatable that will host astronauts.

The company is owned by real estate billionaire Robert Bigelow, which is working on operational modules 20 times larger than BEAM, which is about the size of a small bedroom.

Dubbed the B330, it is designed primarily to be free-floating habitat but Bigelow is discussing with NASA about attaching one to the space station. It would add about 12,000 cubic feet or 30 percent more space to the outpost to support NASA and commercial projects.

The company is developing time-share agreements to lease space aboard the module to commercial entities, research organisations and the occasional space tourist.

At a press conference on Monday at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs Bigelow said, “Our hope is that NASA would be the primary customer for that structure”. NASA is interested in expandable habitats to serve as crew living quarters during three-year trips to and from Mars.

BEAM’s test run is intended to see how it withstands the temperature swings and high-radiation environment of space. The members of station crew would also install sensors to monitor orbital debris and micrometeoroid impacts.

Bigelow said before launch, “This type of architecture has never been flown before,” adding that, “We are not 100 percent sure of its behavior. It is a testing station. That is the whole point in all respects”.

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