Over the weekend, SpaceX delivered the International Space Station's first inflatable module — but there's more where that came from. United Launch Alliance and Bigelow have announced that they plan to put entire inflatable space stations into orbit by as soon as 2020. The pair announced yesterday that they hope to launch a 330-cubic metre inflatable space station — called B330 — aboard the ULA's Atlas 5 rocket within the next four years. That's about 30 per cent of the size of the ISS. It will, they claim, "support zero-gravity research including scientific missions and manufacturing processes", but also add that it could have "potential as a destination for space tourism and a craft for missions destined for the Moon and Mars".
Bigelow has already made prototypes of these kinds of inflatable space structures, and in fact made the one that arrived at the ISS over the weekend, which is known as BEAM. They're constructed of strong, kevlar-like materials — hopefully strong enough to withstand space junk — and are inflated upon arrival. The benefit is obvious: The structures are much smaller and lighter than the usual space station modules that get fired into space.
It's not yet clear who might use the B330 when it's in space. "We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS)," explained Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, in a press release. "The working name for this module is XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement."
We'll have to wait and see if NASA wants to play ball.
Image by Bigelow