The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, better known as BEAM, has been given the green light to stay attached to the aft portion of the International Space Station’s Tranquility node for a further three years. The new contract began in November 2017, according to NASA.
Designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace, the company received a sole-source contract from NASA to keep the inflatable module on the space station for this extended period. Up until now, BEAM has rarely been used by astronauts and cosmonauts residing on board the ISS – that is about to change. BEAM is expected to be used to store spare space station hardware, among other things. Additionally, the extension will allow for additional performance data to be gathered on expandable habitat technologies.
BEAM was launched to the ISS in April 2016 inside the trunk of SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon cargo ship. It was attached to the station not long after. It was expanded to its full volume of 16 cubic meters in late May of that year.
Astronaut Jeff Williams and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka were the first two people to enter the module on June 6, 2016. However, for the most part since then, the hatch has remained closed and the module empty, save for data sensors and monitoring equipment.
In a Dec. 4 release, NASA said it and Bigelow have successfully completed analyses on a BEAM life extension and stowage feasibility. Astronauts are now beginning the process of renovating the interior of the module to provide additional storage space. This involved removing the hardware used for the initial inflation more than 1.5 years ago and converting wireless sensors to wired ones to prevent stowage bags from potentially interfering with data transmission.
The space agency said it and Bigelow will likely add a power and data interface to BEAM to allow for additional technology demonstrations to take place during the next several years. Overall, the module will be able to hold up to 130 Cargo Transfer Bags of in-orbit stowage.
Once 2020 gets closer, NASA and Bigelow will have two additional opportunities to extend the life of BEAM, each lasting a year. After that, the space agency can opt for another extension, or jettison the module.
During the BEAM’s extended stay, NASA and Bigelow will gather data on its structural integrity, thermal stability, and its resistance to space debris, radiation, and microbial growth. According to NASA, initial studies have shown that soft materials can perform as well as rigid materials for habitation volumes in space.
NOTE: While this article was written by Derek Richardson, it was originally published at SpaceFlight Insider. Feel free to head over there to read all the stuff they write about!