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NASA to build inflatable space module on ISS

The International Space Station will soon have a new annex: NASA recently announced a $17.8 million grant for Bigelow Aerospace to produce an inflatable space station module. Specializing in structures designed to remain in low-Earth orbit, Bigelow Areospace develops inexpensive, one-of-a-kind space stations that are at the cutting edge of space exploration.

The module, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, is inflatable, inexpensive, but not light: the expandable habitat is built from a durable Kevlar-like material to protect inhabitants against radiation and debris, and weighs 3,000 pounds. Once filled with air, the full size of the module is 4 meters (13 feet) long and 3 meters (10.5 feet) wide. Collapsible, the module is easier to transport and cheaper to produce than it’s metallic kin. Once it’s in orbit, the inflatable module will be attached to a port on the International Space Station.

Bigelow Areospace has focused on expandable space station modules since 1998, according to Forbes, and had prototypes in orbit by 2006. Extremely versatile, these modules can function as independent space stations or attach to larger structures already in orbit to offer an expanded working space.

Bigelow has a launch planned in the near future with SpaceX, another private company with which NASA has granted a contract in the past. While SpaceX, like Bigelow, designs and builds its own spacecrafts, the company also launches rockets to get these structures in orbit.

According to Bloomberg, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle will launch SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft in 2015, with the module stored in the Dragon’s cargo hold. The spacecraft will carry the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module to the International Space Station. Once the spacecraft docks at the station, the module will be reassembled and an astronaut-controlled robotic arm will connect it to a port.

This contract between NASA and Bigelow for expandable space stations “represents a step forward in cutting-edge technology that could allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably,” according to Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator. Bigelow in turn take NASA’s grant as immense support for the mission, the company stating “We cannot think of a stronger endorsement.”

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is planned to remain attached to the International Space Station for 2 years. During this time, astronauts will test the module and monitor it for durability, collecting data such as temperature and radiation.

While Bigelow Aerospace currently focuses its efforts on research-oriented projects like this one, eventually the company plans to create low-Earth orbiting hotels for private occupation.